© 2024 Ideastream Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why one Ohio town has a festival for “the vacuum cleaners of the woods”

A turkey vulture perches on the branch of a tree on a sunny day in Hinckley.
Cleveland Metroparks
A buzzard perches in Hinckley.

The start of spring is signaled in many ways: snow thawing, flowers blooming, a bit of sunshine. But in the small town of Hinckley, in northeast Ohio, there is another tell-tale sign of the season’s start: buzzards.

According to legend, turkey vultures return to Hinckley Reservation every year on the ides of March. People flock from all over to witness their roost and stay to celebrate nature’s scavengers with a large festival, which will host thousands next Sunday.

Foster Brown, a naturalist at Cleveland Metroparks, is this year’s official buzzard spotter, which means he’ll get up at dawn to ensure he’s able to welcome in the first turkey vultures of the season into the park on Friday.

“People just think of them as a weird-looking bird, but they really are essential to the environment,” he said.

Local lore

Buzzard Day began in 1958, but Brown said the legend behind it starts in the 1800s. The town was just getting started, but its settlers had a problem: bears and wolves were killing their livestock.

So, the town’s founder Judge Samuel Hinckley organized a hunt of the local predators on Christmas Eve. They piled up the carcasses of the wild animals in the center of town. When the winter began to thaw, turkey vultures came to scavenge from the remains of “The Great Hinckley Hunt of 1818."

Still, Brown said the myth was largely forgotten, until park rangers began to notice turkey vultures coming to Hinckley around the same day each year. They told a local newspaper, the Cleveland Press, about their observations and it gained national attention.

A man in a jean jacket, dotted with buzzard pins and stuffed animal vultures, peers into binoculars looking up at the sky.
Cleveland Metroparks
Onlookers come each year to Cleveland Metroparks' Buzzard Roost to spot the return of the turkey vultures.

More than 9,000 people came to watch the turkey vultures at Hinckley Reservation in 1957. The town of Hinckley decided to make a celebration out of it: they started throwing a mid-March festival to commemorate the birds’ return.

The perfect environment

Turkey vultures are a common species in Ohio. During the winter, they leave the state for warmer climates. But, once the temperature begins to climb again in the spring, many communities across the state might be able to observe their population increasing.

“We know from a scientific standpoint, they don’t come just on March 15th,” he said. “Vultures are very opportunistic. So if it’s warmer, they are going to come back a little early. If it’s a really cold winter, they’re going to maybe stay away a little longer.”

Regardless of when they arrive, Hinckley has just the right landscape to make the buzzards feel welcome, according to Brown. Hinckley Reservation has rocky outcroppings and deep woods that the typically “secretive” creatures can use to hide and lay their eggs.

“It’s the perfect place for these vultures because vultures are very shy,” Brown said. “They don’t like to be around people as maybe some of the other birds do.”

The farming communities around the township of Hinckley also provide a steady source of food: road kill. Brown said it’s the perfect combination of habitat and carrion for the vultures.

Scavengers worth celebrating

Most people only know these birds for their role in ‘cleaning up’ roadkill on the side of the highway. But, Brown said there’s a whole host of reasons for celebrating the scavengers.

“I guess you could call them the vacuum cleaners of the woods,” he said. “They’re the size of bald eagles. They have a six-foot span. They’re excellent fliers.”

While many people might think of their bright bald red heads as unappealing, Brown said people should find beauty in their essential environmental role. Their acidic stomachs help them survive eating carrion without getting sick from bacteria – that means, by ‘cleaning up’ carcasses, they help prevent the spread of disease and generally improve the smell of the air.

Two women pose for a photo in hats that resemble cartoonish turkey vultures.
Buzzard Day Hinckley Facebook
People flock from all over to celebrate vultures at Hinckley's mid-march Buzzard Day Festival.

One of vultures’ strongest self defense tools is their vomit. They’re able to deter most predators by coating them in acidic throw-up and partially digested meat. Brown admits that sounds gross, but, in a way, that’s part of the point.

“That’s what makes them special, too. They take what we would think of as nasty, but they take it and use it for good.”

And that, Brown said, is worth celebrating.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.