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Further thoughts on buzzards and the unexplainable

A former rancher offers reflections on a world beyond our comprehension


Further thoughts on buzzards and the unexplainable

John R. Erickson, author of 70 Hank the Cowdog books and other ranch-based stories, knows his subject matter. He was a working cowboy and ranch manager in Texas and Oklahoma. A few weeks ago, he shared thoughts on some strange animal behaviors, including from buzzards. Here are two more essays from him as part of our Saturday Series. —Marvin Olasky

Buzzard Design

My writing office sits in a scenic canyon. I go there every morning to pursue my career as a maker of stories, accompanied by my loyal companion, Rosie the Red Heeler. We share the canyon with other creatures who live there: cottontail rabbits, mule deer, whitetail deer, wild turkeys, raccoons, bobcats, coyotes, snakes, birds, mice, and an occasional Aoudad sheep. I see their tracks in the dust and the animals themselves once in a while.

The creature I see most often is a big black bird that we call the buzzard, even though bird scholars insist that the proper term is “turkey vulture.” I don’t know who is right or wrong on this issue, but if you talk about turkey vultures in the Texas Panhandle, you will draw long stares. In this essay, I will keep the local terminology.

A colony of twenty or thirty buzzards has occupied the canyon for as long as we have owned the place (since 1990). They roost at night in a big cottonwood tree in heavily-wooded Turkey Canyon, 100 yards east of our house. As far as I know, this is the only buzzard roost on the ranch, which covers nine square miles.

Like me, they are creatures of habit and routine, only they are even more zealous about their habits than I am. Buzzards never take a day off or go on a trip. They never vary their daily routine: off the roost at daylight, float around in the sky all day shopping for groceries, and return to the roost when evening shadows grow long. They have one of the worst jobs in the world, cleaning up the remains of dead animals.

One day in September, they vanish and migrate south. One day in April, they’re back. I have never kept careful records, but it might be the exact-same day every year. It makes you wonder how they keep such an accurate calendar and how they manage to find the same roosting tree on the same ranch in Texas. I mean, Texas is a big place.

In the mornings, I step out on the office porch to observe them. Depending on the hour, they will be perched on the canyon rims or flapping to gain altitude or floating a thousand feet overhead.

They are ugly up close but extremely graceful in the air, unsurpassed at soaring, a skill that involves an extremely sophisticated application of physics and engineering. I am deficient in both fields but have enough curiosity to raise questions.

As boys, Bob Wright and I built kites. It was his mother’s idea and she provided us with the raw materials and tutoring. We made a T-shaped frame of dowel rods, attached a string to all four points, glued heavy wrapping paper to the frame and string, and attached a tail of rags to the bottom.

Bob’s kites were prone to fly, mine were not. The difference lay in the way we approached design and balance. I had a creative mind that rebelled against the stern discipline of physics. I resented having to use a tape measure and pay close attention to those little lines between the inch marks. I produced kites that expressed my ideas of kite-ness … and they crashed.

Bob chose the uncreative, plodding path of an engineer (he followed directions to the letter) and his kites took flight and stayed aloft. That always struck me as unfair and unimaginative, but apparently design is important to things that soar and fly.

Six decades later, I applied the lessons of kite-building to my observations of buzzards. The burning question about buzzards (after the obvious one about why they ever got into the business they’re in) has to do with their ability to stay aloft for hours with hardly any flapping of their wings, and it all comes down to design. They are kites, perfectly designed to soar.

My amateur analysis finds two types of design in a buzzard. The first has to do with the framework: basic structure and anatomy. I assume there are certain ratios that balance wing-length to body weight, other ratios that balance the weight of the head to the weight of legs and tail. Get one of those ratios out of kilter and your buzzard will do what my kites did: crash.

There are other, more subtle design features that involve aerodynamics: the movement of air across a surface. Buzzard wings are shaped to create lift, while other parts (head, neck, body, and legs) are shaped to slip through the air without creating drag. The tail is designed to serve as a rudder and brake.

Here’s the part that fascinates me: The design of those body parts goes right down to each individual feather. Incredibly, every feather on a buzzard (or any bird) contains its own aerodynamic design and each individual feather fits the design of the whole.

Incredibly, every feather on a buzzard (or any bird) contains its own aerodynamic design and each individual feather fits the design of the whole.

Now and then I notice a buzzard whose wings are not quite symmetrical. One wing is missing some feathers out on the tip. We must assume that buzzards are constantly shedding and re-growing feathers, in the same way we are constantly shedding and re-growing skin cells. But shedding flakes of skin doesn’t affect our balance or ability to walk. When a buzzard sheds feathers, how could it not affect the delicate aerodynamic design that allows him to glide and float?

I assume that the trajectory of a Southwest Airlines 737 would be affected by small flaws on the surface of its wings, but an onboard computer would make adjustments to tabs and rudder and maintain the right course. Buzzards must have the ability to make similar adjustments, changing the shape of a wing or a tail to compensate for missing feathers.

But buzzards don’t have an onboard computer. Or a software program. Or two pilots. They have a brain but it can’t be very large, maybe the size of a peanut. (The Internet went blank on my inquiry about the size of a buzzard’s brain). Somehow the peanut-sized brain of a buzzard is able to make flight calculations and transmit orders to thousands of individual feathers on the wings and tail.

This is the same brain that keeps a calendar for migration and enables twenty buzzards to find their way back to the same cottonwood tree on the same ranch in Texas every year at the same time.

That is quite remarkable. How does a buzzard order, design, and manufacture new feathers when the old ones get frayed and, come to think of it, who built the original set of feathers with such an exquisite aerodynamic design? Who figured out the architecture of a feather?

These are some of the thoughts that come to me when I’m watching buzzards. They might seem an odd repository for miracles and mysteries, but they are.


I first encountered the term “synchronicity” in a book by Carl Jung, and again when I was doing some reading on the implications of quantum physics. I make no claim to understand the math behind quantum physics, but the implications are truly amazing—that the “reality” we experience in everyday life is a small part of what is there.

My understanding of synchronicity is: a series of “coincidences” that seem to have some meaning that can’t be explained through our normal understanding of cause-and-effect. We are conditioned to ignore synchronicities because they don’t fit our notions of how things should behave. I think an important law of human behavior is that we see what we think we see, and usually find only what we’re looking for.

I think an important law of human behavior is that we see what we think we see, and usually find only what we’re looking for.

I want to share a series of seemingly unrelated events that might qualify as a synchronicity, or several synchronicities.

Last December, I was listening to a channel on satellite radio that was playing classical, sacred Christmas music—the real thing, not Santa Claus, Rudolph, and Frosty. I heard a piece that I hadn’t heard before and thought it astonishingly beautiful. It was sung a capella by a very good choir. I was able to write down “O Magnum Mysterium, by Morten Lauridsen.” I looked it up on Amazon and ordered a CD with that piece on it. A day or two later, I was talking to a friend, Marian Freeland, and she said, “Oh, by the way, I have ordered a DVD for you, about a composer named Morten Lauridsen. I saw the cover of the DVD in Virginia and thought the picture of Lauridsen looked exactly like you.” I was surprised by this coincidence and asked how she knew about Lauridsen. She had heard “O Magnum Mysterium” sung by the Patrick Henry College chorale. I have visited PHC three times and have heard their chorale perform. Nikki Georgacakis, who works for us, is a PHC graduate, and I had already recommended that she buy a copy of “O Magnum Mysterium.” Several days later, my CD of Lauridsen’s choral music arrived, and I listened to “O Magnum Mysterium” over and over in my pickup. It struck me as sublime. I liked the piece so much that I wrote it into a screenplay, “Yellow Rose.” It just seemed to fit the mood of the story. A week later, Marian’s DVD arrived, a documentary about Lauridsen. The cover showed a photograph of him with a gray beard. Yes, he did resemble me, but I thought he looked even more like my brother Charles. I ordered a copy of the DVD and had it sent to Charles and his wife Brenda, who is a violinist. I didn’t know if they were familiar with Lauridsen, but thought it likely, since they live in Portland and Lauridsen spends summers on the coast of Oregon. Brenda was thrilled with the gift, which arrived just as they were celebrating their tenth anniversary. And yes, she was very familiar with Lauridsen. Brenda said that when Charles saw the composer’s photograph on the cover of the DVD case, he said, “He looks like our father.” A month later, I happened upon a book I bought fifteen years ago but had never read: Synchronicity. I have been reading it in the afternoons. Had I not done so, I doubt that I would have placed this series of “coincidences” together or thought of them as synchronicities.

One of the reasons we tend to ignore synchronicities is that, while they seem to have some kind of meaning, we don’t understand the chain of causality or how to interpret the “meaning.” The events seem related, somehow, but we don’t know why, nor can we add them up and come out with a simple explanation.

I have read that people who study synchronicity have a way of grading them by their levels of meaning. Three or four levels of meaning are considered significant. The one I have presented here seems to have at least nine levels.

So this series of events suggests some kind of meaning or relationship. What is it? I don’t have the slightest idea. The two defining characteristics of synchronicities seem to be 1) we are usually not aware of them, and 2) once we begin to notice, we don’t know what they mean.

Even though quantum theory has been around for almost a century, our day-to-day perception of reality is firmly grounded on Newtonian mechanics. When two balls collide, we can predict the results. This seems to be the same perception of reality that guides the behavior of our dogs. When I throw the ball and Dixie can’t find it, she doesn’t assume that it vanished into another dimension. She knows it’s there and looks until she finds it. That is a Newtonian response.

On the other hand, an English microbiologist named Rupert Sheldrake wrote an interesting book called How Do Dogs Know When Their Masters Are Coming Home? It suggests that dogs, and perhaps other animals, can sense certain things that, according to Newtonian mechanics, they shouldn’t be able to sense: earthquakes, tidal waves, the approaching death of their master.

Here’s another example. After sleeping for two hours in my pickup, Mark’s dog Carlos knows that, when I turn onto Parker Street in Amarillo, he is almost home. Coming the other way, when we reach the barn at the ranch, he knows that we are one mile away from Dixie and Daisy. He becomes excited, almost frantic, with anticipation. He pays no attention to other barns or houses on the two-hour drive.

I don’t understand “dog ESP” or synchronicity but find them fascinating. They should remind us that there is much to learn, if we pay attention.

John R. Erickson John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.


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