Monday, September 28, 2015

The legend of the belled buzzard

Illustration from The Sylva Herald.

Jerome Clark devotes a chapter of his book Unexplained!: Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Physical Phenomena (Visible Ink, 2013; 3rd ed.) to the legend of “the belled buzzard”: a buzzard with a bell hung around its neck, which rang, as if in warning, as the bird flew overhead (pp. 233-242).

For decades in the 19th and 20th centuries, scores of sightings of the belled buzzard were reported in small-town newspapers in multiple states, mostly the Southeast. For example, Clark cites several here in Maryland:
  • ·         Hagerstown: “The original belled buzzard” captured “on the towpath of the canal,” 23 April 1930 (p. 240).
  • ·         Woodpoint: Belled buzzard seen in this Hagerstown neighborhood, February 1931 (p. 236).
  • ·         Harford County: Belled buzzard as a harbinger of a buzzard flock numbering “some 500,” presumably without bells, January 1935 (p. 236).
This creature belongs in the realm of folklore more than fact. Even assuming the existence of one such unfortunate bird, it could not possibly have lived so long or ranged so far, encumbered as it was. But the existence of multiple belled buzzards, in the numbers suggested by the newspaper reports, is equally unlikely.

An 1893 sketch, via Matt Jaeger's blog.
Various origins were claimed for the apparently-not-so-unique bird. Was the bell attached by cruel pranksters, or by a vengeful farmer, or did it get there accidentally, while the buzzard was feeding from a cow’s carcass? Most published reports offered no explanation at all. It was just one of those odd things people claimed to see, from time to time.

Given the mystery, I’m tempted to call the belled buzzard a UFO, one long predating the post-World War II UFO phenomenon in the United States. It certainly was an Unexplained Flying Object, if not an Unidentified one.

As with later UFOs, many of these reports could have been simple misidentifications. Once the legend of the belled buzzard was planted in people’s minds, simply seeing a distant buzzard while simultaneously hearing a ringing cowbell, dinner bell or school bell might have counted as a sighting, even though bird and bell were linked only coincidentally.

And of course, newspapers back then were prone to reprint tall tales and outright hoaxes, just to fill space and entertain readers. (Digression: Such observations are sometimes made in a superior tone, as if the media are more trustworthy now, but I’m not so quick to make that assumption, given how much preposterous “news” and other misinformation clogs our email inbox, our social-media feeds, our presidential debates. Our tools have evolved, but our tastes in reading, and our gullibility, are stubbornly unchanged.)

Still, the possibility exists that somewhere, someone did manage to hang a bell on a buzzard’s neck, before it flew away. Maybe that happened in more than one place, involving more than one person. Or maybe the person who initially managed the trick just kept doing it.

Whatever its origin, the legend percolated through popular culture for a while. An old-time fiddle tune is titled “The Belled Buzzard.” Irvin S. Cobb’s short story “The Belled Buzzard” (Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 28, 1912) makes fictional use of the legend. Blogger Matt Jaeger writes about Cobb’s story, provides a reproduction of the cover, and earns extra points for using the adjective “tintinnabulous.” Cobb’s story is here, but be warned: I counted 14 instances of the N-word.

Yes, I’m writing a story about all this. Thanks for asking.

And I noticed, only moments before I posted this, that the cover date on that “Belled Buzzard” issue of the Saturday Evening Post is Sept. 28, the same month and date on which I was unaccountably inspired to blog about this subject, exactly 103 years later. Some would dismiss this as coincidence!

1 comment:

Lucy Kemnitzer said...

Thank you, now I'm listening to that tune, thanks to youtube.