- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2004

ADEL, Ga — Vultures by the thousands pack the limbs of the pine and cypress trees at Reed Bingham State Park, their menacing beaks and shiny black feathers forming one of the nation’s eeriest natural spectacles.

California has its swallows of Capistrano, and Washington state offers bald-eagle watching on the Upper Skagit River, but at Reed Bingham, it’s vultures — or buzzards.

Hundreds of them live year-round at the park in south-central Georgia, but the population soars into the thousands each winter, when migrating vultures arrive from the north.

The park offers opportunities for fishing, boating, camping, miniature golf and swimming, but some visitors come just to see the vultures, says Sam Williams, the park’s assistant manager.

“We have a lot of people within a 50- or 60-mile radius who hear about the buzzards and come,” he says. “We also have travelers coming off the interstate.”

The best times to see the birds are shortly after the park opens at 7 a.m., while the vultures are lounging in the trees and on the banks of the lake, and about an hour before sunset, when they return to roost, Mr. Williams says.

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

“In the evening, you can park anywhere around the lake and watch them come in the hundreds,” Mr. Williams says.

The park gets about 250,000 visitors a year — about 25,000 of them to see the vultures, according to Mr. Williams.

Also known as buzzards, the large black birds perch in the trees or lounge on the grassy banks of the park’s 325-acre lake, waiting for favorable updrafts. Then groups of them spiral high into the sky to search for their favorite food — roadkill and other decomposing animals.

Though their diet may seem distasteful, they help rid the countryside of dead, rotting flesh that could spread viruses and bacteria.

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

“If you ask most people what they think of a buzzard, they’ll probably make a face and make a negative comment,” says Chet Powell, the park’s summertime interpretive ranger, “but they’re very necessary, and they perform a vital function.”

Sometimes roadkill just isn’t enough for the vultures, though.

They’ll eat windshield-wiper blades and rubber gaskets around windshields. They pluck out the rubbery strips between sections of a roadway that crosses a dam at the park, and they peck holes in the park’s foam life preservers.

Reed Bingham has two of the three vulture species found in the United States: turkey and black. California condors, North America’s largest land birds, are the third species. They used to range over much of the West, but now they’re endangered and found mostly in Southern California. Turkey vultures, recognizable by their bald, red heads, are found across the United States and into Canada.

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

Their ability to soar on updrafts with little effort impressed Wilbur and Orville Wright, who studied the flight of vultures before making their historic first flight 100 years ago.

The brothers concluded that the birds twist their wing tips to steer and maintain level flight and borrowed that feature for their plane.

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

Bill Kohlmoos, president of the 800-member Turkey Vulture Society, wonders how the birds survive on contaminated food that would sicken or kill humans.

“There is something in their digestive system that kills viruses and bacteria. If we can find out what that is, it could be of tremendous value to human beings worldwide,” says Mr. Kohlmoos, of Reno, Nev., who is seeking funding for a study of the birds’ digestive systems.

Mr. Kohlmoos has prepared a 10-page pamphlet to teach search-and-rescue teams how to use buzzards for locating victims.

Black vultures often tag along with turkey vultures to take advantage of the latter’s superior intelligence, keener vision and acute sense of smell, which is capable of detecting odors in parts per trillion, Mr. Kohlmoos says. At Reed Bingham, they perch side by side.

Turkey vultures are playful and gentle and seem to enjoy living close to humans, Mr. Kohlmoos says. “They have a sense of humor. Before roosting at night, 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 occasions, they have been known to spew vomit at attackers, he says. “It’s true, but it’s not common. They can become a pet like a dog, but they can also become a nuisance.”

The Friends of Reed Bingham State Park usually host a Buzzard Festival 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, will celebrate the beginning of spring with its traditional buzzard festival in March, when 50 to 60 birds return to nest.

“They’re the trash collectors of the air,” says Jane Christyson, director of Cleveland Metroparks, which owns the park where the buzzards nest.

• • •

Reed Bingham is six miles west of Interstate 75 near Adel, Ga., which is 192 miles south of Atlanta. Take Exit 39 west on state Route 37. Park entrances are well-marked.

Reed Bingham State Park: Visit gastateparks.org/info/reedbing, or call the park office, 229/896-3551.

Turkey Vulture Society: www.accutek.com/vulture.

Buzzard events in Hinckley, Ohio: Annual Return of the Buzzards, March 15 beginning at 6:30 a.m., and Buzzard Sunday, March 21, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Both events at Buzzard Roost, on State Road and West Drive in Hinckley Reservation; call 216/351-6300 for details, or click on the buzzard events listed at www.clemetparks.com/events/index.asp.

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