Does a bird migrate long distances? Odds are, it has long wings. Or perhaps it prefer to walk or run—you can predict it will have long legs. Birds that swim—diving ducks, coots, auks, penguins, dippers—tend to share the same body shape, and if they catch fish, their beaks are similar too. Many Alcids (auks, murres, puffins, and guillemots) and penguins are shaped pretty much the same, and some even have the same coloring, though they’re poles apart.
When out in the field identifying birds, how often do we look at the feet? For me, at least, the bird’s feet may be the last thing I take note of—if I can see them at all. Wading and swimming birds keep their feet under water and out of sight, and mind. Perched birds’ feet are often hidden in the foliage, or too small to see from a distance. Yet, bird feet can provide a clue, not just to a bird’s identity, but also to its habitat, diet, and general lifestyle.
One of the delights of living near the US Air Force Academy is watching the various ways the cadets get into the air. There are the small training planes, the gliders, and the air mattress-like parachutes. Every so often, most often during football season and at graduation, we’re treated to an old bomber or two. And then there are the incredible Thunderbirds, whose aerial display comes right over our house. What a view!
Of course, you can immediately tell when the Thunderbirds are in town—you can hear their screaming engines echoing off the Front Range mountainsides. (If you want to actually see the jet, look far ahead of the point where the sound seems to be originating.) But let’s eliminate the sound for a moment. How can you identify a single-engine prop plane from a glider from a parachute from a jet? Easy—look at the shape of the wing.
Last week I wrote about how birds get their colors—and that had me thinking about what birds do with all those colors.
What’s the first thing you see when you look at these birds? For me, it’s their incredible diversity of color! And it’s not only tropical birds—even cold climates produce blue Steller’s Jays, red House Finches, yellow goldfinches, and pink rosy-finches. Or consider the ruby gorget on a Broad-tailed Hummingbird, flashing its iridescent hue when the sunlight hits it just right. How can feathers be all these colors? It varies.
We have hands. Birds have beaks. Have you ever noticed how useful a beak is? While lacking our manual dexterity, birds have no problem securing their dinners and stuffing said meal down the gullets of their young. Beaks are used to manipulate objects and preen ragged feathers. Some birds use their beaks to impress potential mates, or to scare away intruders. Beaks can even be used as weapons. Have you ever tried to steal an egg from under an irritated hen?
Beaks are also useful to birders, as their size, shape, and color are all helpful when it comes to identifying bird species. In fact, the more attention I pay to birds’ beaks, the better birder I become.
We carefully avoid stepping in it. We grumble as we wash it off our cars before the paint is ruined. It’s an important reason we birders wear hats. Yes, bird poop can be a real nuisance. But have you ever wondered why it is like it is?