Spend enough time outdoors and you can’t help but catch glimpses of an array of picturesque birds, almost no matter where you live.
In my neck of the woods, bright cardinals, vibrant bluebirds, squawking blue jays, tittering mockingbirds, dancing thrashers and soaring hawks are regular visitors, along with a variety of smaller birds such as wrens, sparrows and warblers.
Canada geese, mallards and wood ducks are evident in waterways, as are heron, egrets and white ibises.
Cliff swallows can be found nesting on the underside of bridges, and swarm the skies at dusk, eating insects in sizeable quantities; while a variety of woodpeckers make themselves heard – and occasionally seen – including red-headed woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers.
There are also species seen only rarely, such as buntings, kingfishers, eagles, tanagers, orioles and crossbills.
Along the coast there is a vast assortment of sea birds which, given my infrequent trips to the beach, I choose to classify as gulls, terns or sandpipers. In my book, the latter two are interchangeable, encompassing everything that isn’t a gull.
One can hope that the Bird Watchers Society of the South Carolina Midlands doesn’t take offense at my ignorance and show up at my house with pitchforks and torches; they’re sensitive sorts when it comes to avifauna, I’ve been told.
This weekend I was able to see firsthand the significant diversity evident in the local avian population. Just as last year, I’ve managed to grow a nice large sunflower in my front yard. This one came up all on its own, from seeds that came off last year’s plant. Saturday I spotted a bright yellow goldfinch perched atop it, pecking at the seeds. Within a few moments a second goldfinch joined it, and the two dined away, plucking at seeds and scattering chaff.
The Eastern goldfinch is well suited for such a diet, possessing a conical beak that helps it remove seeds, along with agile feet to grip the stems of plants while feeding.
The vibrant yellow coloring of the goldfinches were brighter than that of the face of the sunflower, which had begun to darken as its seeds ripened.
Contrast that with the view of a day later, when, while driving through a more rural part of the state, my daughters and I came upon a roost of approximately 100 turkey buzzards perched in a dead oak tree. The tree was situated in a low-lying swamp, approximately 15 feet below that of the rural highway, so many of the birds were eye level with us.
If you haven’t seen a turkey buzzard, you haven’t seen ugly. A large bird with a wingspan of up to six feet, the turkey buzzard has feathers that are brownish-black. Its head seems too small for its body and is often red like the comb of a rooster, with no feathers.
It has a short, hooked beak and its feet are pale. Adding to the bird’s strange appearance are its eyes, which feature “a single incomplete row of eyelashes on the upper lid and two rows on the lower lid,” according to Wikipedia.
The turkey buzzard is pure scavenger and loves carrion. It finds its food using its eyes and sense of smell, flying low enough to detect the gases produced by the beginnings decaying process in dead animals. Many a time I’ve come across a “wake” of buzzards hopping and flapping around a deer carcass, fighting each other for the right to rip off a strip of dead flesh.
Because turkey buzzards lack a syrinx – the vocal organ of birds – its sounds are limited to grunts or low hisses.
Other facts that always win folks over to turkey buzzards: They feed their young through regurgitation; to cool down they spread their wings and urinate on their legs; and, best of all, the turkey buzzard’s method of self-defense is to vomit its food. Yes, when one is disturbed or harassed, it will throw up on the creature bothering it and can send said upchuck sailing as far as 10 feet.
That recalls a memorable scene in John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony when youthful protagonist Jody finds his young pony dead just as a buzzard has sunk its beak into one of the deceased creature’s eyes. Jody, enraged, attacks the buzzard, which responds by vomiting on him. (Steinbeck wasn’t exactly noted for treacly prose.)
For us, stopped on quiet backroad, though, the view was quite remarkable. It was almost medieval to see scores of buzzards hunched on the bare branches of an old oak as twilight approached. Some took flight, and the “swoop, swoop, swoop” of their wings made an indelible impression.
Most of the birds didn’t travel far, just to another tree a bit further away, where they perched, silhouetted against a slowly darkening sky.
One supposes every creature has its role in the ecosystem, but given my druthers I’d rather pull seeds from a healthy sunflower or snatch mosquitos out of midair than fight half a dozen other vomit-happy birds in order to tear apart roadkill on a back country highway.