Myth, Legend, or Fact
For half a century, the belled buzzard was the object of headlines throughout the Southeastern United States and the subject of fascination, speculation and doubt. Was this scavenging bird real? News accounts always refer to "the belled buzzard" and rarely to "a belled buzzard." The question still looms, was there more than one of these creatures? And, if not, why were so many of them spotted for more than fifty years when the average buzzard lives just past the age of twenty years? Why were so many of them killed or captured? Why were they seen on succeeding days far, far away from where they were observed the day before?
First of all, let's clear up one fact. What we call a buzzard is not really a buzzard at all. The black birds we see soaring in the sky are in reality known as "turkey vultures." Now, where does the name "belled buzzard" come from? No one really knows. Apparently someone, or some ones, got the idea of tying bells around the necks of the ugly black birds.
One legend states that the bell around the buzzard's neck tolls to signal the upcoming death of a notable person. One account of the origin of the belled buzzard goes back to the latter years of the Civil War when "a group of jolly boys" belled the bird and released it into the wild. The first reported sighting of a belled buzzard in Georgia came in the winter of 1877 when the vulture was spotted over Cartersville. Seven years later over in nearby Taylorsville, a belled buzzard caused one field hand to flee in terror as he believed the sight was an omen of a deadly tornado. Another story claimed that in 1882, the bird was a pet belonging to a farmer Freeman in Paulding County. One day, one of his children attached a sheep bell to one of its legs. When it tinkled, the bird was so afraid that it flew away. The first night into his flight, the vulture landed on the roof a sharecropper's cabin. When the inhabitants heard the ringing, they ran out to see what the matter was. Seeing the black specter and hearing its haunting ring, they fled into the darkness fearing that the end of the world was at hand.
S.R. Bishop saw it over his cornfield in May 1885. The belled creature was spotted again in Georgia in McDuffie County in the winter of 1886. A year later, it was spotted in Tunis, Texas. By the end of the 1887, the bird had returned to Georgia, where it was eating the remains of a dead dog on the Rabun Hall place near Sandersville.
Alex Johnson, of Tennessee, claimed to have shot and killed the belled buzzard in the spring of 1888. A closer look at the bird's corpse revealed a bell three inches in diameter around its neck. Scratched on the bell were the words, "C.W. Moore, Alabama 1863." However, the clapper was gone, which seemed to explain why no one had heard the ringing in several months.
But, by the fall of that year, the belled buzzard was back in flight, this time over Dawson, Georgia. Upon seeing the bird, an elderly black woman picking cotton rose to her feet, raised her hands, and exclaimed, "Oh, Lawd!" before she ran for the safety of her home. Some thought the bird scolded her for her sins as the reason she fled for shelter.
Five years elapsed before the next appearance of the vulture in the spring of 1893 in Marietta and Calhoun, Georgia. After that, the next appearance came in Valdosta in 1899. It turned out the bird was not a buzzard at all, but an eagle shot by John M. Bennett.
With a revival of published stories about the legendary bird, there was always someone who would claim credit for putting the chime on the bird in the first place. When R.C. McCallister, of Fort Gaines, Ga., purportedly captured the belled buzzard and put it on display in May 1900, H. Cobb Davis, Jesse L. Jerrell, and George T. Smith, all members of the Echols Light Artillery during the late War Between the States, claimed that they set a sapling trap and captured the bird. Not wishing to kill their prisoner, the men released it with a copper bell attached to its neck with a leather strap.
A decade passed before "The Man from Juliette" saw the bird as it was flying toward Macon. J.E. Ledford claimed to have captured the buzzard near the Marietta Camp Ground in August 1912. Ledford's claim is somewhat doubtful in that he claimed that after he captured the bird, he removed the small brass bell and then set it free. Roger Taylor and several others saw it again a year later in Monroe County. Amazingly, the bell had found its way back onto the vulture's neck. Just after Christmas, the belled bird was spotted in Tifton for a holiday gathering with a wake of buzzards.
The famous flying fowl finally made it to Laurens County in May 1914. The bird was observed flying over the farm of T.J. Blackshear near Orianna by his farm hands, who alerted friends and family. They ran outside to see the bird and the rest of its friends feeding on a rotting carcass. These witnesses claimed that the other buzzards seemed to be afraid of their belled brother. A month later, the creature was spotted in Dallas by rural mail carrier H.Y. Holland near the same spot as it had been seen twenty years prior. W.C. Brown, of Culloden, was sure he saw the big buzzard with a tinkling silver bell as it flew low over his head.
The wandering bird was spotted in Boston, Ackworth, and Rebecca during the World War I years. In the spring of 1920, the Harrodsburg W.Va. Herald published the obituary of the turkey vulture. Members of the W.H. Leach family saw the emaciated bird and were sure its condition was mortal. But somehow the resilient creature, which had been present at all of the country's wars since the War of 1812 and was known to have been more than a century old, appeared in Waycross, still at the point of imminent death.
Like the phoenix, the belled buzzard rose from death to be seen by Messers Sadler and Cain in Thomas County and a week later in nearby Colquitt County in 1922. The bird returned to Middle Georgia when Miss Wilma Lowe of Gresston, Dodge County, said, "While I was in the backyard I was attracted to the tinkling of the bell. It sounded like a cowbell, only not so loud. I soon found that it was a buzzard flying around. I could see the bell plainly and it could be heard as the buzzard circled around me."
The legendary turkey vulture was seen sporadically in Hahira, Marietta, and Comer until W.C. Birchmore, who claimed he shot the bird, which had perplexed Georgians for 44 years. He put the dead animal and its bell on display. The belled buzzard was never heard or seen again. That is until thirty months later when it walked into Atlanta's Wesley Memorial Hospital in the summer of 1927 seeking treatment for its wounds. I'm not lying. This really happened.
Newspaper stories of the belled buzzard ended in August 1933, when the Atlanta Constitution reported that the famous critter, then still a chick, was finally and truly set free by Robert Nash.
Was the belled buzzard a myth, a legend or a fact? What do you think?
P.S. On the day this column was published, I received a call from Charles Taylor who way back about 60 years ago heard the tinkling of the belled buzzard as he was walking from his school to downtown Gillisville, Georgia. Thanks Charles!