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On a walk around the Lincoln Lake trail earlier in the week I was taken back to a
question I considered in my youth as I circled the prairie hay meadows, mowing down
swaths of grass. Were I to come back as a bird, would I rather be a red-tailed hawk
or a buzzard? Tractor driving provides lots of time to ponder such weighty questions.
At that time eagles were not seen in our area, so I never really decided which afterlife
I would choose.
Walking the trail, I heard a rustling in the trees next to the edge of the lake and
was surprised to see maybe 30 or so black vultures sitting shoulder to shoulder on
the branches of a sycamore. One would fly in, nudge the others for room, and one
or two would fly off. They seemed to have no trouble navigating through the bare
branches of the woods in spite of their five-foot wingspan. Resuming my walk, I came
to the sandstone promontory that overlooks both arms of this small lake where I sat
on a rock to enjoy the view.
When circling effortlessly on a thermal, vulture flights are called “kettles” but
when perched in a tree they become a “committee.” When they move to the ground to
devour roadkill, the congregation becomes a “wake.” The kettle circling my position,
probably because the exposed sandstone fueled the thermal, must have contained at
least 100 birds. Off to my right was a second kettle with an equal number of birds.
Just to be safe, I waved my arms a bit as I laid back on the rock to watch them soar.
As a kid I called these flying scavengers “buzzards” because, at least as I remember,
that was what the cowboys called them in those old black and white westerns. Correctly
they should be called vultures, but even James Audubon got this one wrong. He called
the birds I saw “black vultures” or “carrion crows” but the turkey vulture, with its
ugly, wrinkled red head, he called a “turkey buzzard.”
As it turns out, true buzzards are a kind of European hawk, so using that name for
the two species of vultures found in North America only confuses things.
The black vulture is a widely distributed bird, ranging along the southern states
and as far north along the Atlantic as New Jersey and as far south in South America
as central Chile. The current range map for this species shows the Ozarks as about
as far north as these birds occur but Audubon says he encountered them as far north
as Ohio. I don’t know if this massive congregation of birds was because they perceived
the weather change that is now upon us or if they just found the woodlands around
Lincoln Lake to their liking.
So many birds in one place makes me wonder. How do you feed several hundred five-pound
birds on roadkill? It turns out they are pretty aggressive and ranchers report they
will attack and kill newborn calves, and even cows, while birthing. Audubon says that
in his day (the 1820s and 30s), black vultures were pretty brazen city dwellers, especially
liking open garbage dumps and slaughter houses where offal was readily available.
A friend told me a story of living in Louisiana during one of the bad flood years
in the 1970s. The whole area flooded except for the little knoll on which their little
homestead perched. It became a refuge for all the animals that lived in the surrounding
Each morning she would take her trusty .22 into the henhouse and shoot the snakes
that moved in each night to do mischief. After a couple days of throwing dead snakes
over the fence, the vultures would perch there completely unafraid, waiting for her
to finish her chore.
Neil Compton, the late Arkansas physician and conservationist, said that the Christmas
bird count from 50 years ago reported only occasional sightings of the black vulture
in northwest Arkansas. But, as the deer population of the region rebounded in the
1990s, the number of black vulture sightings became more frequent.
With only a limited number of deer roadkills, the elimination of dead-animal dumps
by farmers and rapid burial of trash at landfills, pickings became slim for these
large birds. Because of their aggressive ways Arkansas has joined a pilot program
to control farm-animal predation.
These dead birds must be “posted” around the ranch as warnings for other would-be
offenders. Audubon, who shot-gunned many birds while making his famous paintings,
recounted that they quickly learned to recognize him and his horse and speedily departed
for other parts when he arrived.
Learn more about black vulture control and how to get a permit.
See more black vulture images
Gerald Klingaman is a retired Arkansas Extension Horticulturist and retired Operations
Director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. After more than two decades of penning the popular Plant of the Week column, he’s taking a new direction, offering views on nature as he pokes about the
state and nation. Views and opinions reflect those of the author and are not those
of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. If you have questions
or comments for Dr. Klingaman about these articles contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.