Over the Hill

We could learn a few things from the humble buzzard

A trio of turkey buzzards perch on fence posts near a field of flowering mustard plants along Los Osos Valley Road.
A trio of turkey buzzards perch on fence posts near a field of flowering mustard plants along Los Osos Valley Road. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

About a week ago at the end of our street, I noticed some roadkill at one corner. It was on the opposite side of the street. I assumed someone’s pet cat or dog had been hit by a car. I also noticed a turkey buzzard perched overhead on the streetlight.

When I came back, I was on the side of the street near the dead animal. I could see then it wasn’t a pet. It was an opossum. I seriously doubt anyone would ever have an opossum as a pet with those 50 sharp pointed teeth.

I also can’t believe many people pronounce the first “O” in opossum. I don’t. But I will spell it here with that “O” because that’s the way it is spelled in my dictionary.

I wasn’t surprised to see an opossum in our neighborhood. I knew some lived around here. In fact, one night I saw an opossum with some little ones in our backyard. We live a 10-minute walk from a wooded gully leading to the Salinas River. We’re also about a mile from the densely wooded Salinas Riverbed.

I’ve read that opossums eat insects and snails as well as berries and fruit. Maybe this unlucky opossum had been hunting bugs and such things at night near the streetlight. Sharing the street with passing vehicles at night can be dangerous. That opossum lying on our street wasn’t playing possum.

But its carcass was still mostly intact. The turkey buzzards hadn’t yet stripped all its meat off. I guess they’ve learned to be extra careful when eating on a street. That takes time.

When I drove that way the following morning I saw one buzzard standing in the gutter or on the sidewalk not far from the opossum carcass. It spread its wings, ready to fly if necessary. I have read that adult turkey buzzards have a 5- or 6-foot wingspan. When flying, they don’t flap those big wings often. Instead they mostly glide on thermal air currents.

We once had a big, dead pine tree in our neighborhood where a flock of turkey buzzards gathered every evening to roost for the night. Maybe they learned about our traffic then.

Turkey buzzards usually only eat dead meat. They can find it while flying because they have especially keen eyes and the ability to detect the gasses from decaying flesh.

By the third morning, the opossum carcass was starting to look abused and spoiled. When I returned that afternoon it was no longer in the street. It was in the closest front yard. I don’t know how it got there, but one buzzard was biting it. Another stood by watching. A third was overhead on the streetlight.

The buzzards were doing what nature developed them to do: clean up messes and reduce the danger of infection. They do it routinely, modestly and without bombastic claims for rewards. Seeing nature at work like that was a relief from the constant deception and venom of our current political campaigns.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 805-238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.