Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, March 15, 2022



Today is Buzzard Day, the day that Turkey Vultures typically return to Hinckley, Ohio from their wintering grounds. That's not very interesting, so let's talk instead about that word "buzzard." It's an American colloquialism, of course, for Turkey Vultures and their relatives like Black Vultures, but like many common names for American animals, it was bestowed by settlers with vague knowledge of wildlife in general, upon the wrong birds. The true buzzards are a group of raptors that includes our Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks. Had the early English colonies been populated by zoologists, we'd surely know these birds as Red-tailed Buzzards, Red-shouldered Buzzards, Swainson's Buzzards, etc. Calling the buzzards of Hinckley "vultures," though, isn't exactly correct, either. The New World birds we call vultures belong to an ancient lineage that's quite different from the true vultures of the Old World, which are more closely related to the sea eagles like our own Bald Eagle. The late ornithologist Dean Amadon used to suggest using the word "condor" for all New World vultures (Turkey Condor, Black Condor, King Condor, etc.), and that's an idea I'd happily go along with. There are a lot of other examples of these confusing American wildlife misnomers. Another good one is the name "Elk," which was given to a large American deer that's much more like the European Red Deer than the animal that should have received that name, which we call a Moose. Can you think of some others? (The painting is of a California Condor, a bird whose name I have no gripes about.)


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