MUNDANE MYSTERIES: The Difference Between Buzzards & Vultures

You know those odd-looking birds that circle above lost cartoon characters & skulk along the roadside after an unfortunate car-meets-wildlife incident? What are those bald-headed birds of prey called? Vultures, or buzzards? While they may be synonymous here in America, in other parts of the world, buzzards & vultures are actually two different kinds of birds.

“Vulture” may be the easiest of the two to define, since the name describes the same animal in all English-speaking countries. Vultures are scavengers known for their distinct, featherless heads, and there are 23 different species throughout the world, including the turkey vulture & the Andean condor.

While “buzzard” has become a common slang term for vultures here in the US, it’s actually used much differently overseas. In the UK & elsewhere, buzzard is a name for a kind of hawk: medium- to large-sized raptors that feed on small birds, mammals, and carrion. There are 26 hawk species with the word buzzard in their name, including the European honey-buzzard, the lizard buzzard, and the common buzzard.

So how did vultures became buzzards in America? Well, we have early European colonists thank (or blame) for that. When settlers first saw vultures flying high above them in the sky, they likely noticed a resemblance to the broad-winged, dark-feathered birds of prey from back home in England. But, by the time they’d had the chance to see vultures up close & realize that they weren’t actually hawks, the name buzzard had already gained traction.

This isn’t the only case of Americans using an animal name in a confusing way. Here, opossums are often called possums for short, even though possum is the name of an entirely different marsupial species native to Australia. So, if you’re traveling abroad & want to tell someone you saw a buzzard eating a possum, you may want to choose your words carefully.

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