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03-15-2024

Buzzards Day: Celebrating the return of these important birds from their winter migration

More than 60 years ago, a fascinating observation about the natural world led to the establishment of a unique celebration known as Buzzards Day. This annual event, held on March 15, honors the return of buzzards (known as turkey vultures in the United States) from their winter migration to the south. 

Particularly beloved in Ohio, Buzzards Day has woven itself into the local culture, drawing thousands of bird lovers each year to witness this remarkable avian ritual.

The origins of Buzzards Day

The story of Buzzards Day began in 1957 when Walter Nawalaniec, a patrolman for Cleveland Metroparks, shared an intriguing observation.

Nawalaniec had noticed that the buzzards returned from their migration on the same calendar date every year. This precise timing was not only fascinating but also predictable, allowing for the community to gather in anticipation of the birds’ return.

That same year, the event attracted nearly 9,000 visitors, marking the start of an annual tradition that would continue to grow in popularity. The consistent return of these birds on March 15 provided a perfect occasion for celebration, and thus, Buzzards Day was born.

A tradition of welcome and wonder

In honor of the buzzards’ return, the Chamber of Commerce initiated a tradition that has become synonymous with Buzzards Day: a hearty American breakfast of sausages and pancakes. This welcoming meal is not just about feeding the community but also symbolizes the arrival of spring and the renewal it brings. 

The choice of pancakes and sausages represents a communal breaking of bread, a gesture of hospitality towards both the birds and the people who come to celebrate them.

Understanding “buzzards”

Buzzards, depending on the geographical context, can refer to different birds of prey within the raptor family. These birds play diverse roles in ecosystems across the globe, acting as nature’s cleanup crew by scavenging dead animals. 

The term “buzzard” is used differently in the United States compared to other parts of the world, leading to some confusion about which birds are being referred to. Here’s a breakdown:

Turkey vultures

In the United States, “buzzard” commonly refers to the Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), a bird that is part of the New World vulture family. Despite the name, they are not true vultures but share many similarities, including scavenging habits.

Characteristics

Turkey vultures are large birds with a wingspan of about 6 feet. They have dark brown bodies and featherless red heads, which are thought to be an adaptation for hygiene, allowing the scavenged remains not to stick to their heads. 

They are excellent gliders and can often be seen circling in the sky, searching for carcasses with their keen sense of smell – a relatively rare trait among birds.

Behavior

Turkey vultures are scavengers, feeding almost exclusively on carrion, and play an important role in their ecosystems by disposing of dead animals.

True buzzards

In Europe and much of the rest of the world, “buzzard” refers to birds from the genus Buteo, part of the hawk family. These birds are also known as “buzzard hawks” in North America.

Characteristics

True buzzards, such as the Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo), are medium to large birds of prey with broad wings and tails. 

They typically have variable plumage, ranging from very dark to light brown, with a rounded appearance in flight and a more soaring flight pattern compared to turkey vultures.

Behavior

Unlike the scavenging turkey vultures, true buzzards are predators that hunt live prey, including small mammals, birds, and reptiles. They utilize a combination of soaring and perch hunting to locate their food.

Ecological role

Both types of “buzzards” play crucial roles in their respective ecosystems. Turkey vultures help prevent the spread of disease by consuming dead animals, while true buzzards control populations of small mammals and other prey, maintaining ecological balance.

Conservation

The conservation status of buzzards varies by species and region. Many buzzard species have adapted well to human-altered landscapes, but habitat destruction, poisoning from rodenticides, and collision with vehicles and wind turbines can pose threats to certain populations. 

Conservation efforts aim to mitigate these threats through legal protection, habitat conservation, and public education.

The power of observation 

Buzzards Day is a testament to the power of observation and the joy of discovery. Each year, as the buzzards circle the skies of Ohio, they bring together communities in celebration of nature’s cycles and the wonders of wildlife.

As we mark over six decades of this unique tradition, Buzzards Day stands as a reminder of the marvels that surround us and the importance of preserving our natural heritage. Their annual migration and return are not just a sign of changing seasons but also a reminder of the interconnectedness of Earth’s living systems.

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