Reflections on the bears and buzzards that vex me

The turkey vulture, often called a buzzard in the U.S., can have a wingspan of 5-plus feet as it masters the updrafts and thermals of the wind and flies amazing long stretches without flapping wings.
The turkey vulture, often called a buzzard in the U.S., can have a wingspan of 5-plus feet as it masters the updrafts and thermals of the wind and flies amazing long stretches without flapping wings.

Buzzards and bears, oh my!

One of the few similarities between these two creatures is that both names begin with the letter “B.” And both are “besting” me, or should I say “beasting” me. More on my animal travails a bit later...

I often point out that life in the hilly Virginia Piedmont is not so different from my life on the Gulf Coast. I’m hard-pressed to say that about bears and buzzards.

In my long association with the Mississippi Coast, I could only write about bears and buzzards. I never saw them firsthand, but I know from research that bears and buzzards have a local presence.

Bears in our woods

Hundreds of years ago, for example, the Biloxi Indians supplemented their fish diet with bear, deer, raccoon and such. Garments were made of bear skins. Then came the European settlers, who over-hunted the bruin, and in this state they were nearly wiped out by the early 1900s.

Still, there’s that delightful Mississippi tale that takes place in 1902 when President “Teddy” Roosevelt was invited to hunt in the Delta. Many believe that from a well-publicized incident during that black bear hunting trip, all toy stuffed bears forever became “teddy bears”

In recent years, Mississippi black bears are making a comeback, with sightings in our southern half of the state.

Buzzards for the history books

Now, to the buzzards. What most Americans, including me, call a buzzard is really a turkey vulture.

I never saw a buzzard circling the Biloxi Holy Land neighborhood where I lived until the thieving Katrina mermaids took my cottage. Twelve years since the storm and there’s still no buzzards, even with more unencumbered trees for roosts.

Occasional sightings in the rural outreaches of the Coast make good conversation, but my only association with buzzards is through history research. For example, I can’t erase the mental image of buzzards frozen to the limbs of trees on Back Bay, a tidbit I discovered when researching the Blizzard of 1899.

In that February blast of unprecedented Coast ice and snow, cows ears froze off and fish became so cold that they floated belly-up to the surfaces of our bays and Sound. Locals gathered mucho fish but they had to be inventive in cooking them because gas lines were frozen and coal bins empty.

The chilling image of buzzards frozen to Coast tree limbs re-surfaces in Virginia when I watch these magnificent fliers soar above the trees on my tiny Piedmont hill. But I don’t expect to find frozen buzzards in Virginia because these are acclimated to a colder climate.

Bears for today’s storytelling

So how are the bears and buzzards besting me? Simply put, they’re hanging around way too much.

Usually by late October or early November, it’s cold enough for the black bears to begin their winter semi-hibernation in hidden caves and hollow tree trunks. But it was so warm this autumn that their pre-winter-snooze forage lasted longer.

I usually only see bears on my small hill when they are headed to their winter roosts in late October or coming out of them in April. The sightings are so rare that I don’t worry about them. But this autumn’s unseasonable warmth turned them into hangers-on and their night marauding resulted in two destroyed bird poles and four smashed bird feeders.

Oh, there’s also that large galvanized can with 40 pounds of bird seed that disappeared. When the bear couldn’t get the chained lid off, it just rolled the can down the hill. Never found the container.

Now that December has arrived and a few freezing spells have passed, I see no new bear evidence. The buzzards, however, are a different story.

Buzzards, buzzards everywhere

The other morning I counted 14 of them in my back trees, and those are only the ones I could see. The night before that I was bringing in the bird feeders (yep, I do learn bear lessons well) when I heard loud rustling in a nearby oak. I counted the silhouettes of four very large buzzards.

My hill is not a usual night roost so I asked, “What are you doing here?” Flap, flap of wings was their reply, as they are not noisy birds by nature.

The next morning I noticed no little songbirds at the feeder, about 25 feet from the roosting tree. If I were a little bird and those big dark guys were hanging around, I’d ignore the feeders, too. Turkey vultures, for the most part, are carrion eaters and won’t attack the songbirds. But they don’t know that.

The next morning I counted 14 buzzards in assorted trees. Yikes! I like Mother Nature’s critters, but I don’t want to rename my hill Buzzard Roost.

I can’t write the end to this story because I don’t know it. I’m hoping the buzzards will head across the street where a neighbor has 200 acres of primitive woods with great roosting potential. I also suspect there are a few hibernating bears there.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran features writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.