Did the buzzards come? No ma’am!

Published 10:45 pm Friday, July 27, 2012

What got me thinking about buzzards was the fantastic Raptor program presented by the Southeastern Raptor Center at Old Lebanon Baptist Church last week. The thinking took me back to the time I followed the lead of the swallows that said, “What the heck. Forget Capistrano. This year let’s go to Hinckley, Ohio.”

In the hamlet of Hinckley, Ohio, there’s an annual rite of spring called Buzzard Sunday.

It’s held on the Sunday following March 15, the Ides of March, and is part of the folklore of the Buckeye State.

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The tradition has its roots in the Hinckley Hunt of 1818. The story is that wolves were coming like thieves in the night and killing all the livestock in what was then a large farming community.

To save their way of life and their livelihood, the farmers banned together to rid the countryside of the predators.

On this particular March morning, area farmer piled smelly, meat renderings and a collection of the carcasses the wolves had left behind in the middle of a field that was surrounded by forests. The sun continued to season the bait throughout the day.

At nightfall, a hundred or more farmers armed with shotguns made their way into the woodlands and waited.

Out of the darkness came wolves, two or more to a man, to feast on the huge pile of “scrap” meat.

Just what the signal was and just how the caller knew when all of the wolves had converged on the pile of meat renderings, no one is sure. Some believe the caller gave a wild yelp. Others thought the signal was a lighted lantern. But no matter. When the signal was given, the blasting of gunshots could be heard to Lake Erie.

When all of the wolves had been slaughtered, the farmers simply walked away leaving the rank meat renderings and the dead wolves to the elements.

And, did the buzzards come? Yes, ma’am! Legend says thousands of them.

Over time, it was observed that each year on the Sunday following March 15, the buzzards returned to Hinckley in hopes of finding another feast of smelly, raw meat awaiting them.

People began to converge on Hinckley to watch the buzzards arrive and soon Buzzard Sunday, as it came to be known, became a rite of spring.

When we moved to Ohio, I found this folk story fascinating. So, on Buzzard Sunday, I loaded unwilling children into the car amid pleas, “But, Mama, we’ve seen buzzards!” and off we went with a packed picnic basket, blanket and binoculars to see the return of the buzzards to Hinckley.

When we arrived, signs welcomed us to Hinckley and invited us to Buzzard Sunday breakfast. Now, being from the warm, sunny South and having visions of a dozen buzzards dining on road kill, we decided to skip the buzzard breakfast.

But we did shell out more than a few dollars for an 8×10 glossy, suitable for framing, photograph of a buzzard, Buzzard Sunday T-shirts and buzzard pins. One son begged for and got a buzzard claw paperweight and the other opted for a buzzard claw backscratcher.

When we arrived at the buzzard observation parking lot, folks took note of the Alabama tag on our car.

“People come from everywhere for this,” I heard one man say as he walked by.

On the way to the lookout point, we stopped where folks had gathered around a wire cage with gangly-looking buzzard inside. They were snapping pictures of the buzzard and the TV cameras were zooming in on the hapless vulture.

Thousands of buzzard watchers had gathered in a big clearing to watch the buzzards return to Hinckley. We spread our blanket, opened the picnic basket and readied ourselves to be a part of an Ohio rite of spring.

If you’ve never lived in Ohio where they have only two seasons – winter and July and August, you might go to such an event without an overcoat, fur-lined boots, gloves, scarf and wool cap. And, if you do go without, you will get hypothermia and freeze to death.

Even though death by freezing seemed imminent, we were determined to see the buzzards come back to Hinckley.

“Buzzard! Buzzard!” someone would yell. But, no, only a small engine plane a-coming.

“Buzzard!” another would scream. But, no, a runaway kite. Then a helium –filled balloon that left a crying child behind.

“Buzzard!” No, a Frisbee tossed high in the distance. No, a jet heading for Cleveland, a fluttering leaf, a fast moving cloud.

We unpacked our picnic – frozen PB&J sandwiches, frozen potato chips, frozen “Vie-ena” sausage and frozen lemonade – we crunched away and waited and waited.

Did the buzzards come, “No ma’am!”

With the exception of the caged buzzard, there was not one buzzard within a hundred miles of Hinckley, Ohio that day – maybe not in the entire state of Ohio that day.

But, by George, if one had come, we were there to see it.

To my knowledge, Hinckley still celebrates the coming of spring on Buzzard Sunday. Folks probably go to Hinckley to eat Buzzard Sunday breakfast, buy buzzard souvenirs, take photographs of a celebrity buzzard, sit on blankets and eat frozen picnics and yell, “Buzzard! Buzzard!”

Do the buzzards come?

Probably not.

But then, neither does spring.