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By Larry Woody, Outdoors Writer

When someone calls you an “old buzzard,” it’s generally not intended to be a compliment.

But maybe it should be.

We’d be in a mess – literally – without them. Buzzards are nature’s sanitation workers.

Imagine what boat ramps, docks and shorelines would be like if buzzards didn’t clean up the dead fish that float in Tennessee waters or the trash fish sometimes discarded by bow fishermen. In the heat of the summer, some of the docks would be virtually unusable if not for the feathered clean-up crews. The same goes for road-kill alongside highways.

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Buzzards are nature’s sanitation workers.

Buzzards were in the news awhile back when a farmer complained that they were preying on freshly born calves. It’s possible, although some biologists theorize that vultures feed only on calves that were already dead.

In Tennessee it is illegal to kill buzzards, although an exception is made if they are harming livestock or otherwise causing problems. If someone, for whatever reason, wants to whack a buzzard it would be a good idea to first plead the case to the local TWRA officer just to be sure.

Other than the calf controversy, I’m not aware of any problems caused by buzzards. They are fascinating birds, once you get past their indelicate diets.

Speaking of which, the bald eagle – our national symbol – is as much a scavenger as a buzzard. During fishing trips to the Canadian wilderness, we would dump our fish scraps away from camp on an isolated little spot christened “Gut Island.” Flocks of bald eagles constantly swooped around, feasting on the rancid fish heads and entrails.

About the only difference between an eagle and a buzzard is that the eagle gets better press coverage.

As a kid, I recall my uncles debating whether buzzards are attracted to carrion by sight or smell.

One of my uncles claimed it was by smell. He said he once hauled off a dead cow and buried it beneath a brush pile he intended to burn later. A flock of buzzards quickly located the cow and descended on the carcass, even though it couldn’t possibly have been seen from the sky.

My other uncle was pro-sight, pointing out that buzzards frequently circle injured animals that are not yet dead and therefore don’t emit a carrion odor. Like the old prospectors in Western movies who crawled across a parched desert and saw the grim shadow of buzzards circling overhead.

Wildlife biologists say my pro-smell uncle was correct: buzzards find their way to the buffet table by picking up scent molecules wafting in the air. Their sense of smell is so acute that they can detect a dead possum from miles away.

I was reminded of the benefits of buzzards last spring when some bow fishermen dumped a pile of dead carp at the boat ramp at Long Hunter State Park. The stench of the rotting carp was almost unbearable.

But thanks to a flock of buzzards the carp didn’t last long. A clean-up crew swooped in and tidied up the man-made mess within 48 hours. It was greatly appreciated by fishermen and other boaters who used the ramp and dock.

Being a buzzard is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.