|Turkey Vulture - in N.A. often called a buzzard.|
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.
|Turkey Vultures have an acute sense of smell.|
“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.
|Red-shouldered Hawk is a soaring hawk (buteo).|
There is one soaring hawk (buteo) which 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).
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 in the list of who could fly what does a buteo appear.
|The Red-tailed Hawk prefers a “sit and strike”|
method of hunting - unexciting to a falconer.
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 upon 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. 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.
|The bald head of the Turkey Vulture is an adaptation|
to feeding on carrion.
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.