The arrival of spring may bring to mind trees sprouting new leaves, flowers bursting with colors and butterflies fluttering from bloom to bloom.
In the northeastern Ohio township of Hinckley, the changing season indeed comes with all that beauty, but with an additional feathery twist — buzzards, or turkey vultures.
While the birds are a welcome sign of spring, they represent much more for the people of Hinckley, who celebrate the birds every March with a holiday known as Buzzard Day.
Part carnival, part breakfast and part natural history lesson, Buzzard Day represents the birds’ role in Hinckley’s legendary founding and the role they play today to help the local environment thrive.
Buzzard Day falls on March 15, with festivities often hosted on the first Sunday that follows.
"My favorite part of Buzzard Day is seeing all of our friends that have been locked up for the cold, cold winters here come out, celebrate something collectively and just visit with one another, see how everyone's doing," said Melissa Augustine, a township trustee in Hinckley.
"After our long winters, it's a celebration, if you will, that spring has officially sprung."
Buzzard Day festivities include a variety of attractions, such as carnival games, a pet show, a craft fair and, of course, opportunities to watch and learn about buzzards. All these activities are kicked off by a large pancake and sausage breakfast for the community.
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"I really love that they not only come and gather, but that they get into it and they have fun with it," said Melinda Mallari, the president of the Hinckley Chamber of Commerce. According to Mallari, many folks return every year wearing Buzzard Day hats and homemade buzzard costumes.
"Now, these are adults, these are grown people, but they get into the spirit of the celebration," she said. "They don't care about looking foolish. They care about celebrating."
A Hinckley tradition
Buzzard Day has been a Hinckley tradition since 1957, but its roots go much further back — back to a time before Hinckley even existed.
The story begins about 200 years ago when Ohio was still part of the American frontier.
"We had a lot of veterans from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 here in this area," Augustine said. According to Augustine, the veterans worked the land, helping prepare its development into a town.
Part of that preparation involved hunting wild animals, such as deer, wolves and bear, one winter. Then as winter melted away and gave way to spring in March, what remained of the hunt ended up attracting buzzards.
As Hinckley grew, so did the buzzards’ reputation, as the townsfolk noticed how the birds returned to Hinckley every March like clockwork. So in 1957, the township hosted the first Buzzard Day to celebrate the birds and the spring season they helped shepherd in.
"The return of them, to me, is just so profound," Augustine said. "Who would have thought that a bird would return to the same place for two hundred years?"
"That's just phenomenal to me, and something that we recognize and are very proud of."
Nature’s garbage men
The buzzards’ arrival to Hinckley 200 years ago illustrates the critical role that the birds play in the environment.
"Buzzards are pretty amazing animals," Mallari said. "In terms of their purpose in the whole ecosystem, they're kind of like our garbage men — they're the ones who clean up."
Cleaning up is what initially brought the buzzards to Hinckley after the hunt all those years ago.
"The interesting thing about buzzards is they can't eat anything that is alive," Mallari said, adding that their stomachs contain enzymes naturally geared toward processing rotten material.
"Folks sometimes think it's yucky because [the buzzards] eat dead things, but in fact, they keep our area clean," she said. "It's our natural earthly sanitizers because things live and things die."
"We have a lot of wildlife here, so they're the birds, the animals, who keep our area clean and sanitized. All of that is a process in turning over, enriching the land, enriching the soil — and we're in farm country, so it all works together."
A source of pride
While buzzards are not exclusively found in Hinckley, Ohio, the people of Hinckley have carried on a special, decades-long tradition of celebrating the birds with Buzzard Day.
"It's a source of pride," Augustine said. "It's a fantastic way for the community to get together. We even have people come from all over the country."
"We're very proud to have the buzzards come back to Hinckley every year," she added.
And apart from the fun, festive nature of Buzzard Day, every spring serves as a reminder of the birds’ contribution to the town of Hinckley and its environment.
"One of the interesting sights that we see around town at this time of the year is they have to dry off their wings," Mallari said.
"Overnight, if they've been sleeping and they get dew on their wings, in order to fly, they have to dry off their wings. So you will see them often in groups of 20 or more on a big tree or a utility pole, and they've got their wings outstretched to let the sun dry their wings."
"So, it's a pretty dramatic sight," Mallari said. "And we're grateful for them."