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Feather from the Sky

Buzzards may be common birds, but why did they have to hang around my ranch?

An artist's rendering of a buzzard

Who in the world could love a buzzard? The ugliest bird known to man, the carrion eater of the west.

Whenever I thought of them, I imag­ined some old prospector lost in the desert, searching for water while buzzards circled above. I know–they have their place in the scheme of things. God made ’em just like he made us.

I just didn’t like seeing them, wheeling in my blue Montana sky. Their beady eyes, bald heads and huge black undertaker’s wings–it all sent a shiver down my spine. Lord, I thought, I know you made this bird, but did you have to make them so ugly?

Fortunately, buzzards are naturally leery of humans, so my husband, Milton, and I rarely saw them on our farm. At least until that day last spring when we drove up to our wheat fields at Rock Creek and one stared at us from a cottonwood tree.

I stepped from the pickup to open the gate. “One of the fellows in town mentioned he’d seen one,” said Milton. Ugh. Does that mean I’m going to have to see the ugly thing every time we come here?

Seeming to read my thoughts, the big bird spread its wings and flew away. Good. Maybe that’s the last we’ll see of him.

No such luck. A week later, when Milton and I drove up to that section of our farm, the first thing I did was scan the cottonwood. It was empty. Then I looked over at the big steel towers that hold the power lines that run through our property.

There between the steel girders, high up under the outside arms of the giant tower, a black hulk sat looking down at me. “Mr. Buzzard,” I hollered, waving my arms, “you git now!” Slowly he dropped off the frame, his wings spread to pick up the breeze. Then a shadow followed. Another one.

“Milton, there’re two of them.” We watched as great strokes carried them over the ridge of the far hills. Anger flared up in me. I didn’t like having a harbinger of death near our grain bin.

The next time we arrived at the gate, the sky was empty. Searching the horizon, I squinted at every distant dot that might be a bird. Then I walked over to the tow­er–first checking below for rattlers. Feeling puny beneath its Goliath skeleton, I peered up through the strut work. Nothing.

Disappointed somehow, I joined Milton at the grain bin. I’d wanted the satis­faction of chasing off the birds. Glancing back at the tower a minute later I saw both birds perched on it like they’d been there all day. How did they do that?

All summer long as the golden wheat ripened in the sun, Milton and I had to take equipment up to the fields. Just about every time, the buzzards pulled the same trick.

Then one day in the fall, with harvest just a few days off, Milton and I were working in the field for 20 minutes with no buzzards in sight. Where were they?

I walked over to the base of the tower and craned my neck, staring up into the maze of iron girders. No sign of them. Worried about rattlers, I looked down at my feet. There in the grass, long, slender and black, a feath­er lay like an offering.

I picked it up and ran my finger down its length. It was enormous–maybe a foot and a half long. My eyes traveled up and down the feather, taking in its deep black sheen. I felt its velvety smoothness. It was quite sim­ply a thing of beauty.

The kind of beauty that could only come from above.

There was a rustle of feathers overhead. I looked up to see my friends settle on a girder. Friends? Yes, friends.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Sorry I ever missed your beauty.” The birds dropped off the tower and rose up, the silver underlining of their wings shining as they climbed higher and higher, swooping away from each other, then back, then away again.

They’re dancing. It was a funny thought, the birds waltz­ing in the sky. Yet it was a comfort too. There’s a time for everything. Even in what we might fear most, there is a beauty.

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