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Why buzzards in Sonoma County don't deserve their bad reputation

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Buzzard Peak, high on Hood Mountain, overlooks Highway 12 just east of Santa Rosa. West of Cloverdale and Healdsburg there’s Buzzard Rock, Buzzard Creek and Buzzard Spring. A buzzard, of course, is another name for one of our most prominent birds, the turkey vulture. (There’s a Vulture Ridge out there, too.)

In most of the world, a buzzard is not a vulture, but a bird of prey in the same genus as many of our hawks. If California were in Europe, we’d probably have a “red-tailed buzzard” not a “red-tailed hawk.”

Vultures, on the other hand, are universally known as bald-headed, long-necked scavengers that eat carrion. Old World vultures and New World vultures share these traits, though they actually belong to two different bird families.

Hawks and vultures can be confused in flight, especially at a distance by casual observers (turkey vulture wings make a “V” in flight). When Europeans arrived on the East Coast, turkey vultures must have reminded them of the buzzards back home. The misnomer stuck and eventually made its way west. Their bald red heads and dark plumage also give them a resemblance to male wild turkeys. While soaring over the landscape, turkey vultures — or buzzards (take your pick) — use their keen senses of smell and sight to find dead animals. “Vulture” comes from the Latin word for “tearer”— using their sharp beaks, they tear through the skin of a carcass and thrust their heads into the body cavity to eat.

A group of perched turkey vultures is called a “wake.” You can often see one arrayed on a telephone wire by the road, waiting for a car to serve up a fresh meal. A similar scene occurred in Mexican times at the annual matanzas, when ranchos slaughtered huge numbers of cattle. Hides and tallow were processed for trade, but the meat was largely discarded in big piles. One eye witness recounted how “the vultures would gather, along with condors, coyotes and grizzlies, to take part in the feast.”

Condors lack a good sense of smell and are thought to locate carcasses by watching for “kettles” (groups) of turkey vultures circling. In turn, the vultures benefit from the condors by waiting for them to pierce the hides of larger animals that are harder to get into.

Turkey vultures are attracted to the stench of decaying flesh, which contains ethyl mercaptan. This is what you smell when there’s a natural gas leak, though it’s added because the gas itself is odorless. Following in the condors’ flight path, gas company field workers sometimes locate pipeline leaks by looking for kettles of turkey vultures.

A turkey vulture’s lifestyle can be hard to appreciate. Besides their disgusting diet, they defecate on their legs to cool off and defend themselves with projectile vomit. But imagine if they weren’t around. Their excellent immune systems allow them to devour food full of diseases like botulism, anthrax, cholera and salmonella that would kill other animals.

Even though death is a constant, there aren’t that many bodies lying around. The turkey vulture’s scientific name, Cathartes aura, means “cleansing breeze.” A pretty good name for a free sanitation service.

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