Monday, August 30, 2010

Where have all the buzzards gone?

     Where have all the buzzards gone? Long time passing. Where have all the buzzards gone? Long time ago...

     You may be wondering what's up with the sad Pete Seeger song. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a buzzard afficionado. I don't particularly like any of the dead-and-decaying-flesh predators. Creatures such as bottom sucking catfish and carnivorous maggots have a way of turning the stomach.  Goats I can tolerate, since they are more dumpster-divers than road-kill gourmands, but buzzards can make one a little nauseous. The image of some foul and sinister fowl dining on flesh-a-la-macadam is not an appetizing thought, but I do appreciate the cleanup job they do to keep road kill from over-running our highways. I certainly wouldn't want to be one, but I value their efforts and am mighty glad when they have finished off a lump of mashed up innards scattered across the highway. So naturally, I was distressed to discover that buzzards were falling down on the job on the backroads of South Carolina.
      It began with our regular drive down Highway Nine from Chester to Lancaster. One morning, Sissey and I  noticed a rather large and obviously dead creature lying on the edge of the road.  It appeared to be a swan, but due to it's contorted position, the exact species was hard to discern. It was brilliantly white, covered in feathers, and stiff with rigor mortis. It caught our attention because of it's size and the fact that swans are not exactly prevalent on Highway Nine. I may have been mistaken, it may have been an errant alabaster turkey escaped from some farm, but in our opinion it was a swan.  We noticed it again as we drove home that afternoon.
     The next morning, said bird was still lying deceased on the edge of the road.  And again, in the afternoon, the mound of feathers appeared undisturbed, ruffling only when caught in the draft of passing cars. For the next week, we watched that dead bird, just lying there on the roadside, intact but very, very dead. 
    Day after day, Sissey and I noted the bird's location and condition. It appeared to remain fully intact, unmoved,  and untouched. In fact, it didn't even appear to be rotting or decomposing in any way.  It just lay there, stiff and large and white and dead.
     After two weeks, that damn bird was still lying on the side of the road.  I was starting to get agitated at this point, because it seemed unnatural for that prime decaying flesh to just go to waste on the edge of the highway.  Not a single predator had nibbled or gnawed on a single feather. It didn't even appear that maggots were working from the inside to reduce the bird to a pile of fluff. It just sat there, day after day, dead, dead, dead.  It was uncanny.  It just wasn't right.
     Several days later, in the way that only happens on college campuses, the subject of maggots and buzzards came up in, of all things, geology class.  The professor had been telling the class a story of a road-kill deer her father had dragged home one day, only to discover when gutting the buck that maggots had taken up residence in the carcass well before he had claimed it. This led to a discussion of the decomposition of flesh and the creatures that thrive on rotting carcasses.
      At this point, the professor mentioned that her very favorite bird was a turkey vulture, aka buzzard. I know you may be thinking that is odd, that most people would choose something majestic like a peacock, or brilliant like a cardinal, or delicate like a hummingbird, but Ms. Martek loved the sinister and dark turkey vulture. It alarmed her that they seemed to be disappearing from the horizon. She searched for them on her daily commute from Columbia, kept her eyes glued to the skies and perused the edges of the interstate, but had not seen one buzzard in many weeks.  Not a single black wing spanned the skies. Not one scavenger scoured the highway.  Dead possums and smashed racoons, an occassional unfortunate deer, an unlucky squirrel or two....all tasty morsels left untouched on I-77 and Highway Nine, not a buzzard in sight.
      As a scientist, she was interested in why the buzzards were disappearing, where they had migrated to, what had caused their numbers to recede, when the decline began. As a commuter, I just wanted to know how that dead bird was going to get cleaned up off the road.
     We mentioned the dead swan to her and commented on the lack of buzzards disposing of the flesh. She, too, had noted the carcass and the fact that not a single vulture had arrived to begin the process of devouring the bird. We agreed to conduct a little informal field observation and note how long it took for the carcass to disappear.
      And then, one morning as we rounded the curve in the road, there they were. Surrounding the still-gleaming white feathers of the dead swan, a small group of no more than twelve black buzzards flapped and bobbed and pecked and pulled, devouring the premium-aged meat with determination.   Even as our car whizzed by, they barely moved out of it's path as they claimed their prize and scattered feathers across the tarmac. It was, I must say, a beautiful sight.
      We couldn't wait to get to school to let Ms. Martek know her birds had returned. Why it took so long for them to arrive, where they had been in the meantime, we will never know, but they had finally returned and were busy on the job.
      We still don't know why their numbers are declining, or if they are in fact disappearing, but it is obvious that turkey vultures are not as common as they were before. Is it because we are disturbing the balance of nature with our progress, our industry, our development, our claiming of the world as ours alone? Is it because we are polluting our skies and our streams and our lands with our waste and our toxins? Is it because we are disrupting the natural order of the world with our rapid pace of life, with our incessant consumption of it's resources?  I don't know.  I only know that I don't see as many buzzards as I once did, and if they leave us for good, we will miss them more than we ever thought possible. I only know that if there are no buzzards to devour the decaying flesh of the animals we have killed with our automobiles, the medians will quickly become foul cemeteries that pollute our commutes. Our scenic byways will reek of rotting carcasses and become congested with our road kill.  Not a pretty thought for our morning drive to school.  Won't go well with that cup of coffee in the console.
       Funny how important a nasty old bird becomes when it seems to be disappearing.

       When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn? 

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