19 December 2011

Early History the Celebrated Belled Buzzard

Nearly two centuries ago, some folks found an unescapable buzzard and decided — for whatever sort of reason — that a small bell should be affixed upon the bird. The event was a unique and pivotal event, especially about the eastern states — especially once the bird took flight to ring its way along.

Sightings of a belled buzzard eventually became a distinctive facet of lore for the history of ornithology. Occurrences of the tinkling bird(s) became prominent in the eastern states, according to the numerous accounts as obviously noted in many newspapers of the era.

Original accounts occur in the 1870s, but there are anecdotes from earlier times.

"Local history has it that the buzzard was captured and belled by pioneer residents shortly after the war of 1812." — denoted the Jasper News 25(5): 8, as issued from the Missouri town, though the event occurred elsewhere. Though this record is from many decades after the first observation of a buzzard thus marked, it does indicate some perspective for a first known occurrence.

One account noted the extent of survival for a belled buzzard, in the vicinity of Paris, Kentucky:

"For several years a belled buzzard has been seen flying over a dozen counties in this section of the state, and had frequently been reported in the southern part of the state, 150 miles from here. The other day three lads, Willie Hall, Kenney Nicholas and Wilmot Kenney, of this place, captured the bird. It had been strapped to its neck by a piece of rawhide a small brass bell on which was engraved 'Atlanta, Ga., April 21, 1865.' The bird had gorged itself on a carcass near by and couldn't fly. After detaining it for a few hours they permitted it to fly away again." — Omaha Daily Bee 18(188): 2, issued on December 19, 1888.

An South Carolina account provides an original view from the latter 1870s.

"A few weeks since a strange sight was presented to a farmer living in the vicinity of Branchville in this wise: A dead pig lay in a field close by his house whose scent attracted a very large buzzard. A little girl in passing had her attention drawn to the spot where the pig was by the ringing of a bell. Upon examination she discovered that the bell was hung to the birds neck. She repaired at once to the house and informed her father of the fact, who immediately went in quest of the novel spectacle. To his surprise he found what his daughter had said to be true. The buzzard was belled, and when frightened flew off with the bell ringing in the air." — Orangeburg News and Times 10(50): 3, February 3, 1877.

The news item was then subsequently noted in Georgia, as reported by the Chronicle and Sentinel.

An 1881 report from Texas was contributed by R.H. Floyd:

"Richardson, Dallas County, December 12. — In your issue of October 28 you stated that a belled buzzard had been seen in the neighborhood of Captain Westbrook's, on Cow bayou, and again in your last issue (December 9) you state that it is now 'circulating around Howard and Stampede, across the Bell county line.' I will state that Mr. Chris. Huffhines, of this place, about the 15th of October, caught a buzzard in a steel trap, and tied a small bell around it and turned it loose. The buzzard flew off to the southwest, and I presume it is the same buzzard that has been 'worrying' the people of Bell county. Mr. Huffhines claims the buzzard, and wishes the citizens of Bell county notified of his claim through your paper."

In early March of 1884, a belled buzzard was noted near Taylorsville, Pennsylvania:

"The story of the celebrated bird is an interesting one. Nearly two years ago it was a pet in a barnyard of a farmer named Freeman in Paulding county. One of his children one day attached a sheep bell to the bird's foot and the tinkling sound so scared it that it immediately flew away. The first night out is alighted on the roof of a negro cabin in Heard county. One of the inmates went out to ascertain the cause of the bell ringing, and immediately the buzzard rose from its perch, and flew away. The night was clear and cold, and as the inmates rushed out and beheld a great black object and hear the tinkling of the bell hundreds of feet in the air, great fear seized the. They all took to their knees under the impression that the end of the world was at hand. Ever since the bird has pursued its migrations through the State arousing the fears of the superstitious, who regard its visits as omens of evil. The negroes and many whites, too, along the track of the late storm insist that they heard the fateful bell before the terrible wrath of the wind had come upon them." — Lancaster Daily Intelligencer

The last paragraph of the story presented some additional historic details, with different specifics. This particular account noted that in 1867 an buzzard had been belled in Putnam County, and up until 1889, when his presence was last reported in Green County, he was vouched for as having visited points as west as Meridian, Miss., and several northern counties of Tennessee. Other newspaper accounts with basically the same text, gave years of 1817 and 1850, respectively for when the bird got belled and was still being heard. The account made its way to the desert southwest, being included on the pages of the Arizona Silver Bell, issued at Globe City.

During the summer of that year, a short notice indicated a buzzard was ringing "its bell quite lively at the farm of John Davis and other places last week and afforded considerable interest and amusement to the young people as well as the old. This buzzard seems to lead a charmed life and it is hoped no one will attempt to destroy it." the Lancaster Daily Intelligencer

States of the east are known for more occurrences of these birds. With the widespread and seemingly continual reports, it would appear there was more than just one buzzard ringing along its way.

"Messrs William Hales and Sam. Hulett caught a buzzard and put a bell on it. Anyone hearing 'music in the air' need not become alarmed and join the Millerites." — an item in the local news for Antioch, as published in the May 16, 1885 issue of the Frankfort Roundabout 8(35): 4.

It apparently wasn't enough to have a buzzard flying around with a bell. There had to be derivatives, which add to the folk's lore:

"Some of the boys of White Rock, Little Britain township, captured a turkey buzzard last Saturday in a cave along the Octoraro and in order to coin a new species of the avis tribe painted its feathers alternate stripes of white and yellow and let it go. He will make a companion for the belled and Everhart's buzzards" — May 27, 1885, Lancaster Daily Intelligencer 21(227): 4 issued in Pennsylvania.

The following spring, "a buzzard with a bell has been creating a sensation on Pleasant Run, scaring horses and creating panics among flocks of sheep. Even the other buzzards are afraid of the one with the bell, and when it approaches they retire to a safe distance and allow it to feed in solitary state." — attributed to the Lebanon Standard as published on May 26, 1886 in the Daily Evening Bulletin 5(157):3 of Maysville, Kentucky.

An account of the marked buzzard in early spring of 1887 provides these details:

"Advices that have reached us, state that the belled buzzard that has been spoken of in the south for years and which was recently seen in this county, was shot the other day by J.C. Corrington at Tunis, Texas. The bell was well toned, of brass, and about two and a half inches across the base. It was hung to the bird by a copper wire, twisted around the neck. There was no chafing, the skin being protected by an abundance of down; '1879' was scratched on the narrow, flat top of the bell. The last heard of the bird was in Virginia, a short time ago, and it was presumably on its way south at the time. The constantly recurring visits of the birds to this locality have been a standing local for a number of years and it is a matter of great regret that we will not, in the future, be able to chronicle the wanderings of the bird. " — from the Centreville (Md.) Observer as published in the Alexandria Gazette 88(51): 4, issued on March 2, 1887.

Though this report is from Texas as attributed to an eastern newspaper, another report from Texas in January 1888, provides further details of occurrence in the northern part of that southern state.

"Some two or three years ago a buzzard was caught and belled in one of the northwestern states. It was seen in northern Texas last year. On Thursday last it was seen again on the farm of Mr. J.M. Nicholson, near Chappell Hill. It is supposed to be the same buzzard, as there is no account of any other being belled. Let us see now where it will be heard from next."

This report may have referred to a buzzard in the northeastern states.

The newspapers which were the source of these accounts are available at the Chronicling American website, with many subsequent stories through 1922 available for perusal. A search option allows quick access to items of particular interest. Additional — and more recent accounts from even modern history — can be appreciated by doing an internet search of online content and alternative newspaper archives, including those which are pay-for-a-view.

Buzzard Considerations

Consensus regarding the identification of the belled buzzard is that it was a vulture, according to the chronicles. Facets of the bird's behavior support this contention, as it was seen roosting prominently, taking advantage of dead animal carcasses, and readily found and accessible for attaching a bell, which may have been during the period when the species was nesting and the juvenile bird(s) could not fly. The term buzzard has also been used to refer to species' of hawk, though their young are raised in tree nests and fledglings are somewhat less likely to be so easily approached.

Whether it was one of two species of vulture is not at all apparent. Potentially it may have been the Black Vulture, or perhaps the Turkey Vulture. The belled buzzard could have been either species of vulture, with each having a seasonal range in the states where accounts of occurrence were reported. A mention of the turkey buzzard would indicate an attribution to the latter species.

Although somewhat vague, notes of the bell burdened buzzards also indicate the longevity of the birds which certainly attracted attention. Multiple instances are recorded, but if a particular buzzard occurred within a region, some of the accounts spanned a relatively long period of time, indicating the many year which a buzzard would live. Birds found with a date scribed on the bell they carried, are more notably accurate in defining the period the bird endured with its unwanted attachment.

Whatever the actual specifics, the many details available provide an extensive history which establishes an ongoing legacy of the belled buzzard. What a special history, so completely unique in the ornithological history. That it continues to be presented — even in current times — is an indication of an enduring legacy originating from someone's quirky perspective while in the presence of a wild buzzard, while having a bell readily accessible.