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The Buzzards of Hinckley, Ohio, USA

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Buzzards over Hickley

People tell the story - a true story - of 'the miracle of the swallows'; how each spring, swallows wing their way back to San Juan Capistrano, California, there to nest in the ruins of the old Spanish Mission and raise their young, bringing joy to the residents' hearts and balm to their weary souls. This is not that story.

Meanwhile In The Midwest...

The good folks of Hinckley, Ohio celebrate the arrival of spring when the buzzards1 return from their winter stomping grounds in the southern United States and points beyond. Thousands of the birds arrive on 15 March and set up housekeeping in Hinckley Reservation, a public park that is home to the 90-acre Hinckley Lake and Whipp's Ledges, a rocky outcropping formed more than 250 million years ago and rising 350 feet above the lake.

At first glance, the buzzard is not the stuff of legend. A large and ungainly-looking bird, this scavenger is a dark-blackish colour and boasts a six-foot wingspan. Unlike most other birds, the buzzard lacks a syrinx, or voice box; its calls are mostly hisses and grunts. It prefers to dine on carrion: dead raccoons, opossums, skunks, snakes and other 'delicacies'. If carrion is not readily available, the buzzard will resort to killing small mammals or young birds.

The buzzard has an interesting flying technique. It doesn't fly so much as glide. It will begin by spiralling its way upwards2 until it catches an air current, which it rides to its destination. From the ground the bird looks a bit tipsy as it continually rocks on its wings to adjust to shifting air currents. However unaesthetic its technique though, the buzzard conserves a good deal of energy by gliding. Thus it can easily handle the thousands of miles it covers in its seasonal migrations.

The Origins of the Legend, Maybe

Given this ability to go pretty much wherever they like, why on earth would the buzzards choose Hinckley, Ohio as their breeding grounds? And why would they return on the same date each year? There are a number of explanations for the birds' behaviour. Legend has it that the buzzards were first attracted by the remnants of the Great Hinckley Hunt of 1818.

The Hunt took place after area settlers got fed up with predators from the surrounding woods eating their livestock. On 24 December, 1818, hunters surrounded a large wooded area and advanced, firing their guns and forcing their game into the centre of the area. According to historical records, the hunt netted 300 deer, 21 bears and 17 wolves, as well as hundreds of turkeys, foxes and raccoons. This was more than enough to feed the settlers through the winter. The remains of the slaughtered animals froze and were well preserved until the spring, when they thawed and attracted the buzzards.

However, an old manuscript written by William Coggswell, who was one of the first white men to settle in the area, suggests that the buzzards nested in the area long before the white man arrived. He told of finding the 'vultures of the air' near the spot where the Wyandots3 had hanged a squaw (a female Indian) for witchcraft.

Naturalists have a more prosaic explanation for the phenomenon. They say that the birds have found the perfect nesting site in Hinckley Reservation. The area is ideal, with abundant water, ample room to lay their eggs on the rocky ledges above the lake, and the open fields and nearby tall trees giving rise to the thermals on which the birds soar.

None of the proposed explanations answers the question of why the birds return on the same date each year. Like their counterparts in San Juan Capistrano, the birds travel thousands of miles twice a year. Trackers have identified Goya, Argentina, which lies 7,500 miles (12,000 km) to the south of San Juan Capistrano, as the swallows' winter home. This means that the swallows travel an incredible 15,000 miles each year! Yet, they manage to time their comings and goings with almost clock-like precision. In fact, no one knows how they do it, and the buzzards, of course, aren't talking.

Hinckley Makes Merry

Each year the residents of Hinckley observe the miracle of the buzzards with the traditional Buzzard Sunday celebration, which takes place on the Sunday following 15 March. Festivities include a pancake breakfast, musical entertainment, storytelling, educational programs and, naturally, bird watching. Visitors from out-of-town have been coming to witness the returning birds' arrival since the first Buzzard Sunday in 1957. They and the town's inhabitants happily greet the hissing, grunting, feathered harbingers of spring, content in the knowledge that all is right with the world and that the good people of San Juan Capistrano have nothing on the proud residents of Hinckley, Ohio.

For the Birds

If you'd like to see birds with more appealing dietary habits, take a look at what some other bird-watching Researchers have spotted.

1Also known as turkey vultures.2This behaviour is called 'kettling'.3An American Indian tribe residing in the area.

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