Are the buzzards flying?

Buzzards are some of the most interesting and most observed animals in the U.S.  They are found in all 48 lower states, predominantly in the southeast US.  A few interesting

Beautiful in the air, but ugly on the ground...

fact: they are federally protected, they can live to an incredibly long age (38+ years), and when they circle, they are probably not circling over a dead carcass.  Here’s a website that is dedicated specifically to them.

For pilots, they are a great indicator for your potential flight.  Here’s some buzzard questions that might help you make decisions about your next flight:

Are they flying? Basically, if you are anywhere near a rural area during the daytime in most of the US (especially the southern US) and don’t see any buzzards flying, then you should probably not either.  Look up in the sky…no buzzards?…then there’s probably a really good reason.  Although they love updrafts, they will not fly if the winds are super-strong creating lots of turbulence, if the ceiling is low, or if the visibility sucks.  I’ve used this as a barometer for decision-making lately.  I’ve looked at the weather reports and forecasts, made my decision about flying or not, and then gone outside to look for buzzards to get their opinion.  Inevitably, the buzzards have made the same flight decisions I’ve made.  Sure, we can fly IFR with low ceilings a visibilities, but if the buzzards are not flying, then exercise lots of wisdom in your decision making.

Are they soaring smoothly? If the buzzard is rocking his wings in flight, so will you.  Normally incredibly graceful fliers, if their wings are rocking, it is due to turbulence. Wanna give give your passengers an accurate pre-flight turbulence brief?  Have them look to the buzzards.

Are they circling? Buzzards circle in updrafts, not over food.  If the food were below, they’d be on the ground eating.  Buzzards are soaring birds that are keenly aware of updrafts and thermals so they don’t have to flap their wings (and waste energy).  They can fly for hours without flapping their wings by just using the available lift.  If you see a “venue” of buzzards (yes, that’s what it’s called) they are in lifting air.  You can use this lifting air too, or at least know it is present…glider pilots learn to follow the birds behavior to find lift.

Are they flapping their wings? Buzzards look for updrafts and will only flap their wings (aside from takeoff and landing) if they cannot find updrafts.  If they are flapping their wings during flight more than usual, then you can rest assured that there is a predominantly stable atmosphere and you can expect a small lapse rate and flight conditions that come with stable air (lower visibilities, smoother air, temperature inversions, etc.)

Will they dive?  When the buzzards are flying they pose a threat to you in the form of a bird-strike.  When threatened in flight, a buzzard will always tuck his wings and dive.  Use this to your benefit to avoid hitting the buzzard in flight.  If you are about to hit a buzzard in flight, if given the option you should climb, not turn or descend. A buzzard-strike can be extremely dangerous.  Buzzards are large birds and can weigh enough to go through a windshield  or severely damage the structure of the airplane.  Army helicopter pilots fly with their clear visors down, even on an overcast day simply for protection in case of a bird-strike that penetrates the windshield.  You should avoid a buzzard-strike like the plague and learning their behaviors can help you avoid a costly mid-air.

Don’t have buzzards in your area?  No problem…any soaring bird will do.  Eagles, falcons, and many other birds of prey will provide  excellent excellent cues.

The point behind this discussion?  Human bodies are created by God to work well on the ground, not the air.  When we are in the air, we are out of our element and must use a contraption of some sort and must adapt to the conditions that are present.  Birds are created by God to fly, and they are in their element while flying.  So, learn from the birds.  They are naturally flying and do it extremely well from the first time their mother kicks them out of the next.  A good example…ever notice that birds will always land into the wind?  You’ll never see one land with a tail wind; they will always turn into the wind even if at just the last moment.  You can use this to determine winds without looking at the windsock.

The next time you fly, be sure to consider our “fellow aviators” and see if they help you make flight decisions.  I’m betting the buzzards will give you some insights that will help your flight techniques and flight decision-making.


About Joe Casey

ATP, CFI, CFII, MEI, CFI-G Commercial Pilot - SE, ME, Rotorcraft, Glider US Army AH-64 Pilot and UH-60 Instructor Pilot and Instrument Flight Examiner
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