THE DILLSBORO BUZZARDS
For several weeks now, the town of Dillsboro has been host to a large gathering of buzzards. On #107 just outside the village and traveling towards Sylva, several large, dead trees on the left sport an array of solemn birds that appear to belong to the species bueto. They are a well-behaved crowd that sit quietly like old cronies. Each time a brisk breeze comes, they spread their wings like comic Draculas, occasionally emitting a call that (I am told) sounds like a cat’s meow.
Occasionally, several will take flight and join their brethren in circling a nearby hilltop. Throughout the day this dark spiral waxes and wanes as the buzzards arrive and depart. Of course, this is an activity that is associated with the presence of a dead animal – a cow, deer or dog somewhere in the dense woods above town.
Dillsboro is not the only location in this region with a flock of buzzards. These somber birds are often seen in sections of Webster and Cullowhee that are near the Tuckaseigee. The only difference is a significant increase in number. I counted fifty in a half-dozen trees outside Dillsboro. Why are they here? Perhaps a reader can answer that question.
Some twenty years ago, while looking at a 1950’s microfilm of the Asheville Citizen, I hit my first article about a “belled buzzard.”&n bsp; According to the article, three vultures – one with a bell around his neck - had been seen flying south out of Asheville. The sighting was verified by several farmers who contacted the Citizen, each claiming to have heard the mournful bell tolling as the birds flew away.
This single article sent me on a ten-year search of old newspapers, folklore collections and southern ghost stories. I learned that the belief in the belled buzzard was once prevalent in our region. The buzzard came to announce the approach of death and was commonly believed to arrive at the homes of notables such as venerable judges, wealthy politicians and ailing Confederate generals. South Carolina claimed that this harbinger of doom visited court houses during murder trials; Georgia folklore records an instance in which thebuzzard followed a murderer for months until he confessed. A dying minister in Asheville told his family that “the vulture is on the ridgepole of this house now! Listen!” Ding-ding. I don’t know exactly when the dreadful bell was finally silenced, but the last spate of sightings that I was able to locate was in Alabama and Arkansas during a cholera epidemic. This tale dealt with a lonely buzzard that was shunned by his brothers. The bell made them nervous so each time he arrived in a favorite roosting place, all of the other birds flew away. The last time he was seen, he was keeping his solitary vigil on the Arkansas River.
Maybe Dillsboro needs a belled buzzard now that the train is gone. Instead of Thomas, the Train’s hearty toot, we would have the tolling of a little bell as the dreaded bird flies up and down the railroad track. If the other buzzards would join him as he flies from Dillsboro to Nantahala, perhaps the tourists would return. Perhaps tours could be established and raptor specialists could lead groups of vulture watchers to the favorite roosts. Perhaps this activity would energize the flagging economy.Can’t you just see it! Standing on the banks of the Tuckaseigee, the raptor specialist from Bryson City could warn the group: “Shhhh! Quiet Now! They are coming!”Ding-ding, ding-ding, ding-ding.