Georgia Tourists Flock to See Vultures

A D E L, Ga., Jan. 30, 2004 -- Vultures, thousands of them, pack the limbs ofthe pine and cypress trees at Reed Bingham State Park, theirmenacing beaks and shiny black feathers forming one of the nation'seeriest natural spectacles.

California has its swallows of Capistrano, Washington Stateoffers bald-eagle watching on the Upper Skagit River, but at ReedBingham it's vultures.

Hundreds of them live year-round at the park in south-centralGeorgia, but the population soars into the thousands each winterwhen migrating vultures arrive from the North.

The park offers opportunities for fishing, boating, camping,mini-golf and swimming, but some visitors come just to see thevultures, said Sam Williams, the park's assistant manager.

"We have a lot of people within a 50- or 60-mile radius whohear about the buzzards and come," he said. "We also havetravelers coming off the interstate."

The best times to see the birds are shortly after the park opensat 7 a.m., while the vultures are lounging in the trees and on thebanks of the lake, or about an hour before sunset when they returnto roost, Williams said.

Swooping in by the Hundreds

In the morning, it helps to have a boat to travel upriver totheir roosting trees, but a boat is not essential because many ofthem bask in the morning sun on the banks, a short distance from aroad.

"In the evening, you can park anywhere around the lake andwatch them come in the hundreds," Williams said.

The park get about 250,000 visitors a year — about 25,000 ofthem to see the vultures, according to Williams.

Also known as buzzards, the large black birds perch in the treesor lounge on the grassy banks of the park's 325-acre lake, waitingfor favorable updrafts. Then groups of them spiral high into thesky to search for their favorite food — road kill or otherdecomposing animals.

While their diet may seem distasteful, they help rid thecountryside of dead, rotting flesh that could spread viruses andbacteria.

The odd-looking birds are often depicted in movies and cartoonscircling above thirsty souls stranded in deserts.

"If you ask most people what they think of a buzzard, they'llprobably make a face and make a negative comment," said ChetPowell, the park's summertime interpretive ranger. "But they'revery necessary and they perform a vital function."

Road Kill Not Enough

Sometimes road kill just isn't enough for the vultures, though.

They'll eat windshield wiper blades and rubber gaskets aroundwindshields. They pluck out the rubbery strips between sections ofa roadway that crosses a dam at the park and they peck holes in thepark's foam life preservers.

Reed Bingham has two of the three vulture species found in theUnited States: turkey and black. California Condors, NorthAmerica's largest land bird, are the third species. They used torange over much of the West, but now they're endangered and foundmostly in Southern California. Turkey vultures, recognizable bytheir bald, red heads, are found across the United States intoCanada.

Turkey vultures and condors have to eat dead animals becausetheir talons are too weak to kill prey.

Their ability to soar on updrafts with little effort impressedWilbur and Orville Wright, who studied the flight of vulturesbefore making their historic first flight 100 years ago. Thebrothers concluded the birds twist their wing tips to steer andmaintain level flight and borrowed that feature for their plane.

Black vultures, which have gray heads, also eat carrion, butthey have stronger talons and sometimes attack small animals. Theyrange from New Jersey to Florida and west to Texas and Arkansas.Less adept at soaring, they have to flap their wings more oftenthan turkey vultures to remain aloft.

Bill Kohlmoos, president of the 800-member Turkey VultureSociety, wonders how the birds survive on contaminated food thatwould sicken or kill humans.

"There is something in their digestive system that kills virusand bacteria. If we can find out what that is, it could be oftremendous value to human beings worldwide," said Kohlmoos ofReno, Nev., who is seeking funding for a study of the birds'digestive systems.

Turkey Vultures' Sense of Humor

Kohlmoos has also prepared a 10-page pamphlet to teachsearch-and-rescue teams how to use buzzards for locating victims.

Black vultures often tag along with turkey vultures to takeadvantage of their superior intelligence, their keener vision andtheir acute sense of smell, which is capable of detecting odors inparts per trillion, Kohlmoos said. At Reed Bingham, they perchside-by-side.

Turkey vultures are playful, gentle and seem to enjoy livingclose to humans, Kohlmoos said.

"They have a sense of humor," he said. "Before roosting atnight, they play tag, soar into the air and play follow the leader.As the wind dies, they settle in trees."

When severely threatened, they play dead and on rare occasionshave been known to spew vomit at attackers, he said.

"It's true, but it's not common," he said. "They can become apet like a dog, but they can also become a nuisance."

Kohlmoos said he gets e-mails from people who enjoy watchingturkey vultures, but complain that they're "rooting on my roof andpulling shingles off."

The Friends of Reed Bingham State Park usually host a BuzzardFestival in February, before the transient birds fly North to nest.This year the plans went awry, so there won't be a festival.

However, Hinckley, Ohio, about 25 miles south of Cleveland, willcelebrate the beginning of spring with its traditional buzzardfestival in March, when 50 to 60 birds return to nest. Organizerswill watch for their arrival around March 15 followed by a largercelebration March 21.

"They're the trash collectors of the air," said JaneChristyson, director of Cleveland Metroparks, which owns the parkwhere the buzzards nest.

If You Go…

GETTING THERE: Reed Bingham is located 6 miles west ofInterstate 75 near Adel, which is about 192 miles south of Atlanta.Take exit 39 west on state route 37. Park entrances are wellmarked. REED BINGHAM STATE PARK: Visit or call the park office at(229) 896-3551. THE TURKEY VULTURE SOCIETY: Visit BUZZARD EVENTS IN HINCKLEY, OHIO: Annual Return of the Buzzards,March 15 beginning at 6:30 a.m., and Buzzard Sunday, March 21, 11a.m. to 4 p.m. Both events at Buzzard Roost, on State Road and WestDrive in Hinckley Reservation; call (216) 351-6300 for details orclick on the buzzard events listed at