A buzzard is a buteo, not a vulture

WILLIAMSVILLE — Last spring, when I was touring Windham County with a friend during a day of birding, we kept an eye on the sky for soaring birds. The atmosphere was rather heavy, and these soaring birds were not getting lift off the ground.

In the early afternoon, my friend matter-of-factly said, “There's our buzzard.” He was referring to the dark shape soaring high overhead, its wings forming a distinctive v-shape as it teetered on the air currents.

On another recent occasion, I was driving along an interstate when someone in the car asked about a circling bird. “Is that a red-tail?” She was referring to the common Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Someone else in the car replied, “Nope, that's just a buzzard.”

For many years, my indulgent spouse allowed an old cowboy hat to perch embarrassingly on top of the grand-father clock. It was a tattered hold-over from youthful days when I experimented with various personae. It had a long dark feather attached to the band.

From time to time, a visitor in our home would look at the rakish plume on the ragged relic and ask, “Where did you find the buzzard feather?” I usually replied that I had picked it up along some river when I was canoeing.

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In each of these cases, the buzzard being referred to is the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura). Turkey Vulture is the “official” common name established by the American Ornithological Union (AOU). It is the name by which a bird is supposed to be called among nonscientists. The AOU is not always successful in assigning birds common names, since folk names have an enduring persistence, but the AOU tries. One birding friend constantly uses old folk names for birds, causing confusion or disdain among the birders he meets in the field, depending upon whether they are inexperienced birders, or over-experienced birders.

“Buzzard” is a common and enduring folk name for the Turkey Vulture. Other folk names are “turkey buzzard” and “red-necked buzzard.” Likewise, the other eastern vulture, the Black Vulture, goes by “black-headed buzzard” or just “black buzzard.”

In the American dialect of English, the New World vultures are very firmly known as buzzards, and the fact that this is linguistically and historically inappropriate is probably irrelevant to most people.

Originally, “buzzard” was the common name for the soaring hawks - the buteos. In North America, buzzard became associated with vultures. The word “buzzard” derives from an Old French word, basart, which means “hawk” and which in turn probably derives from the Latin buteonem. The family of birds which we know as buteos (in the East: Broad-winged Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Red-tailed Hawk) in Europe would be known as buzzards, not hawks.

There is one soaring hawk (buteo) that is found in northern latitudes around the world. Its scientific name is Buteo lagopus. We know it as the Rough-legged Hawk; it makes its home in the Arctic and comes south to the northern United States during the winter.

But if you are talking with an English birder, he or she will refer to the same bird as the Rough-legged Buzzard (yet another tidbit of evidence that our countries are separated, not by an ocean, but by a common language).

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So how did this change come about? I have a couple of theories. My Oxford English Dictionary tells me that buzzards were regarded as useless hawks. This in turn led to a secondary meaning for the word: “a worthless, stupid or ignorant person.”

The judgment of useless derived from the usefulness, or lack of usefulness, to the falconer. Falconry used to be the “sport of kings.” There was a strict code among the nobility for who could fly what. It depended upon one's rank.

There could be serious consequences for the noble who presumed to fly a bird above his or her appointed rank. For example, a king could fly a Gyrfalcon; an earl a Peregrine Falcon, a noblewoman a Merlin, and landed gentry a Northern Goshawk. Nowhere on the list of who could fly what does a buteo appear.

As sporting birds, the soaring hawks did not measure up. Modern falconry often uses buteos with considerable success, but it seems that they are just as often difficult and frustrating.

A friend used to fly a hatch-year Red-tailed Hawk during the winter; he released it back to wild in the spring. For three years running, I asked him how this year's bird was doing, and each time he would talk about the difficulty he was having with the bird.

It reached the point where my friend was questioning his falconry skills, but the characteristics of the genus buteo may have been as much, or more, of a factor. The old nobility did not use buteos, buzzards.

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I have a couple of theories as to how “buzzard” changed its meaning from soaring hawk (buteo) to vulture. When the landless gentry (the second sons of the English nobility) came to the mid-Atlantic shores and started naming the fauna, they looked at the vultures, perhaps misidentified these soaring birds as buteos, knew they were useless as falconry birds, and named them buzzards.

However, since buzzard is a folk name for the vulture, and since most of the early European colonists were anything but nobility or gentry, I think it more likely that there was a political and social commentary at work among the common people as they put names on the North American fauna.

They knew that falconry was the sport of the idle nobility, and they knew that a buzzard was also a useless and stupid person. They looked the ugly vultures feeding on rotting meat, and all of those associations combined in their unconscious; the vultures were called buzzards.

Well, those are my theories. Take them with extra measures of caution.

Naturalist and author Scott Weidensaul has said all that can be accurately said about the folk naming of vultures: “The word 'buzzard' still properly refers to buteos. Early settlers in North America, however, transferred the name to vultures, and it remains an inaccurate slang term.”

However the vulture came to be named the buzzard in North America, it is almost certain that the sturdy Puritans who settled New England are not responsible.

Historically, the Turkey Vulture is a southern species. As recently as the 1920s, when Forbush wrote his “Birds of Massachusetts,” the northern limits of the Turkey Vulture's range was southern Connecticut. It has moved northward and is now common in Vermont.

When the snows recede and the air warms, Turkey Vultures return to our skies. Along with the blackbird flocks, the Turkey Vulture is now a sign of spring.

If you want to call vultures by their folk name, buzzard, you certainly may. But please be aware that they are not useless, or stupid. By our aesthetic standards, they may be ugly, but to another vulture that wrinkled red head is the height of beauty.

Turkey Vultures are masters of the air, able to sail and soar gracefully with but the slightest of effort. And ... they have one of the most acute senses of smell in the animal world. They can capture a few stray molecules from as much as 50 miles away and follow that trace scent to its source.

Many people are turned off by vultures because they eat dead stuff and garbage. Most people I know also eat dead stuff, and humans generate a lot of garbage. Somebody has to clean up after us. Vulture do a lot of that.

Recapping the language lesson: Buzzards are buteos (soaring hawks), not vultures. Even if it is not correct, call vultures buzzards if you want. Slang makes the language colorful and alive.

Good birding!

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