March 20, 2003
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'High-flying signs of spring' return

When Linnea Denman bought her house on President Street a few years ago, she didn’t know it came with a few extras — about 80 buzzards.
So she was a bit surprised to walk out the front door one day and find, high up in her pine and sycamore trees, rows and rows of the large, black hunched-over birds, like so many grim, balding judges. But since then she and her children, Nathan and Lindsley, have grown fond of their yardmates, though the birds’ personalities may seem less than sparkling. The kids love finding the birds’ huge black feathers, and sometimes Nathan and Lindsley lie on the ground and watch the large birds soar gracefully overhead.
So Denman was delighted last week when the birds returned to Yellow Springs and began settling once more in her trees.
“I love them,” she said. “They’re a peaceful, majestic presence. I think they’re beautiful.”
While some might argue the birds’ beauty, no one can dispute what their arrival means — that spring is not far behind.
“It’s wonderful to see them in the sky,” said Bill Felker, who writes of buzzard sightings in his News column, “A Yellow Springs Almanack.” “They’re a high-flying sign of spring.”
The buzzards — officially they’re turkey vultures — began straggling into town a few weeks ago, according to villagers. Phil Hawkey saw one in February, then nine more last week, and Dave Casenhiser sighted five. Bill Short, who lives on the corner of Allen and Corry Streets, swears they appear each year on March 15 or 16.
By last weekend, large groups soared in the sky above their favorite trees in the President Street neighborhood.
The buzzards’ return this year was a bit later than usual due to the long, cold winter, Felker said.
No one knows for sure where they go when they leave each fall, according to Betty Ross, the director of the Glen Helen Raptor Center. The buzzards might winter as far south as the Bahamas or as close as Kentucky, she said. And no one knows why they come back each year to Yellow Springs.
“We’re fortunate to have them,” said Ross, noting that the Miami Valley couldn’t support many more buzzards than this group, which was once counted at 144 birds. The buzzards fan out during the day, soaring over an area about the size of the Miami Valley to find their food — any dead animals, most often roadkill. At dusk, they return to the President Street neighborhood and hunker down for the night.
Buzzards, an endangered species, roost communally and don’t build nests, Ross said. Rather, they raise their young, one to two a year, in abandoned trees or buildings. They mate for life, and can live to be almost 50 years old, said Ross, who considers the birds quite intelligent. Despite their grim appearance, they seem to like people, she said, offering the example of Shelby, a buzzard raised by the Raptor Center a few years ago who, when released, refused to leave Yellow Springs. Shelby seemed drawn to children and tennis, and could often be found hanging around the Community Children’s Center, the Antioch School or the Antioch tennis courts.
However, Shelby did seem to know she was a buzzard rather than a person, Ross said, because the bird always turned up at the Raptor Center for meals, frequently bringing friends home for dinner.
The buzzards have called Yellow Springs home for at least 50 years, said Ross. In the 1950s and ’60s, they roosted in John Bryan State Park along the Little Miami River, then they moved to trees near the park’s lower picnic area. They’ve only moved into town to the President Street neighborhood in the past few years, she said.
According to local legend, the birds began coming to Yellow Springs more than 70 years ago after a Clifton-area farmer, brought to ruin by the Depression and the subsequent government seizure of his land, defiantly killed all of his livestock and pushed them down a hill behind his fields. Felker once wrote in his column, “Buzzards, always on the lookout for the dead, soon found these decaying creatures. They were so impressed, they returned each year thereafter in search of more good things to eat.”
The buzzards’ dining habits cast them in an unfavorable light for some, including Diane Foubert, whose tall poplar trees near her President Street home are also a favorite buzzard hangout.
“They’re interesting, but I don’t think of them as beautiful, clean birds,” she said. “I’d just as soon they didn’t come.”
Across President Street, Foubert’s neighbor Marge Russell expressed her opinion about the birds even more strongly.
“It’s a mess,” Russell said of her backyard, where buzzard droppings have destroyed her grass. “They have no redeeming qualities.”
Two doors down, Mary White feels more favorably about the birds that roost in her backyard trees most evenings, from about 6 to 8 p.m., “for cocktails only,” she said.
“I think they add a certain amount of character to the neighborhood,” White said. “And they drop big feathers that my cats love.”
While President Street residents offer mixed reviews, many villagers take joy in the birds’ renewed presence in local skies.
“Doesn’t everyone wish they could get up there and watch the world go by?” Felker said. “Oh, man, such a great sense of freedom.”

—Diane Chiddister