When I was at the Middleville Museum a few years ago they had a display of cow bells from a few neighbouring farmers. I had no idea that each bell belonged to a different cow and that is how the farmer’s distinguished them.
In Lanark County you could sometimes stop walking along the side of a back road and hear the faint clank of the cow bell. In the summer when the cows were in the pasture finding them and bringing them home for evening milking would have taken hours of searching if it were not for the cow bell. They were crafted by blacksmith or tinsmith and measured eight inches along the four squared sides.
On day as a child there seemed to be cow bells ringing in the sky and I thought it was actually a bell around the neck of a turkey buzzard often called a turkey vulture. We could hear the bell coming and first thought it was the ice cream truck but couldn’t see anybody anywhere on Albert Street. It stayed in the neighbourhood two or three days and we always knew it was around because we could hear the bell tinkling.
The bell was about the size of a small cow bell and the buzzard seemed used to it, or at least he didn’t mind it at all and it didn’t seem to bother him. My father thought it might be somebody who kept the vulture for a pet and attached the bell when he let it out for exercise.
One day my Dad was cutting the grass and the sound of that bell kept getting closer and finally he looked up. The buzzard was about 75 feet up—and he could see the bell clearly around its neck. Every time it would go up or down the bell would ring. The vulture seemed to enjoy the music as it circled around and I think it went to roost in a tree fascinated with everyone watching him. All the neighbours had seen this vulture at this point, and insisted the bird had a cow bell on him.
Adding to the evidence that there was a buzzard with some sort of bell going around one day my Dad spotted him again. He and a couple of his men went on a job in a very rural area. One of his assistants saw a flock of buzzards and finally he spotted a bell on one of them. The buzzard bell sounded more like chimes and his apprentice said, it was way too small for a cow bell. My father laughed and agreed-
“Those town folks may know buzzards” he remarked, “but they don’t know cow bells” he laughed.
Writing this story today I had no idea that “The Belled Buzzards” were a series of strange bell-wearing birds of prey that had been sighted all across the country roughly from the late 1860s and into the 1950s. One legend states that the bell around the buzzard’s neck tolls to signal the upcoming death of a notable person. For half a century, the belled buzzard was the object of headlines throughout the Southeastern United States and the subject of fascination, speculation and doubt. Those that heard its haunting ring fled into the darkness fearing that the end of the world was near.
These creatures were described as resembling normal turkey vultures or buzzards, with the exception of the strange bell they wore around their necks. Occasionally the birds were said to have worn the bells around one of their legs. The most common explanation is that the belled buzzard was part of a poorly-thought out prank wherein someone tied a bell to a buzzard they had captured. I’d like to think that is exactly what it was and leave the lingering chimes of this story now before I tell my grandchildren and scare the feathers out of them.