“Once, years and years and years ago, someone trapped a buzzard, and before freeing it clamped about its skinny neck a copper band with a cowbell pendent from it. Since then the bird so ornamented has been seen a hundred times–and heard oftener–over an area as wide as half the continent. It has been reported, now in Kentucky, now in Texas, now in North Carolina–now anywhere between the Ohio River and the Gulf.”
The above lines come from the short story The Belled Buzzard by Paducah-born author and actor Irvin S. Cobb, a murder mystery set in a southern swamp in which the murderer, Squire Gathers, is continually haunted by the vision (and sound) of a buzzard, or turkey vulture, with a bell around its neck.
The story was first published in the September 28, 1912 edition of The Saturday Evening Post and was an instant sensation. While a newspaper man for many years, Cobb was relatively new to the world of fiction (though some might say his journalism danced around the edges of factuality). With the publication of The Belled Buzzard, however, Cobb found a voice that resonated with readers and established him as a contender in not just the world of journalism, but also storytelling. In fact, many future articles about Cobb cited The Belled Buzzard as one of his greatest tales.
While surely a masterfully written story and deserving of all its kudos, the legend of a buzzard with a bell around its neck was not wholly a construct of Cobb’s imagination. The lines quoted above weren’t just rhetoric; for more than half a century, from pre Civil War through the 1920s, sightings of a belled buzzard spanned the southern and eastern United States.
Cobb, as a newspaperman, surely read many of these reports. In fact, in an interview with the New York Sun, Cobb’s wife, Laura, talked about her husband’s writing of The Belled Buzzard, “I have never known him to write a story until he has worked it over in his mind for a couple months or more. He tells me that he has always a hundred germs developing at a time, and that he will not live long enough to write all his stories. A year before he wrote The Belled Buzzard he was visiting in Georgia. We were sitting on a front porch one morning and a huge buzzard flew past. Mr. Cobb recalled a Southern story about a belled buzzard, and remarked that he guessed he would weave a plot round it. Just one year later he finished the developing and wrote the story.”
Enough reports about a belled buzzard are on record, that its existence is probably not a hoax. Though its exact origins are unclear, it seems that someone at some point in time actually captured a buzzard and tied a bell around its neck. The chiming bird flew away and thus the legend began. However, the span and breadth of sightings are so far and wide, that a single belled buzzard seems unrealistic. Actually, it would be impossible. Sightings occurred from Pennsylvania to Texas, and while a turkey vulture lives on average about 20 years, the newspaper reports cover more than 60 years. This means there must have been several belled buzzards which made the tying of bells around the necks of turkey vultures, oddly enough, sort of a trend.
In Kentucky alone there were numerous reports. The first reference I found, reported in the Hopkinsville Kentuckian in 1889, actually declares the capturing of the belled buzzard. S.R. Boyd found the tintinnabulous bird on his farm, its wing crippled by a gunshot. Mr. Boyed removed the bell and “kindly placed the buzzard upon the carcass of a shoat, where he was left to enjoy himself.” The bell was engraved with the words : M.K. White, Garrettsburg, KY, 1881. Despite the buzzard’s capture and unbelling, a decade later, as stated in the Livingston Banner, Mr. George Jarrett and others in his company saw the buzzard in plain sight along with the bell which “was distinctly heard and was very much like the sound of a sheep bell.”
In 1897, the buzzard was even spotted in Grahamville, right here in McCracken County. The Johnson boys of Grahamville were outside burning a pile of rubbish when they heard the sound of a bell. According to the Paducah Sun, the boys “finally discovered that the sound came from overhead, and looking up they perceived a buzzard circling about above them, and could even see the bell.”
Of course, a cub reporter for The Sun at the time this article was printed was none other than Irvin S. Cobb.
In subsequent years, the buzzard was seen throughout central and western Kentucky, as well as in many other states. However, in 1910, the Hopkinsville Kentuckian brought shocking news with the report of the death of the belled buzzard in Carlisle, KY. Said the article, “On top of a hay stack on the farm of J.C. Arthur, near here, was found the carcass of the belled buzzard, which for a number of years, has visited all parts of Kentucky. When found the buzzard had a turkey bell fastened to its neck with a leather strap.”
A sad day for all fans of large, musically adorned birds.
But if you think that was the end of the belled buzzard, you’d be sorely mistaken! Like a phoenix from the ashes, the buzzard rose again, spotted a couple years later in Crittenden County and in Pulaski, TN, and for many more years to come…even after Mr. Cobb published his famous story.
For whom does the bell toll?
Not for thee, Belled Buzzard!!
Ring a ding, ding!
To read Cobb’s story The Belled Buzzard in its entirety, follow this link: http://www.readbookonline.net/
To learn more about Irvin Cobb himself, please visit the McCracken County Public Library on June 26 at 7:00 p.m. for a program on Cobb’s life and work presented by Andrew Halford. More information about this program can be found on the library’s website at www.mclib.net
And to learn more about carrion carillons, visit us in the Local and Family history Department at the McCracken County Public Library.