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Zoo-ology column: Feathered findings offer clues

March 6, 2011 at 10:02 p.m.
Updated March 5, 2011 at 9:06 p.m.

The black skimmer uses its large beak to skim food off the surface of the ocean as it flies over.

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By Judie Farnsworth

Look at a bird. Can you tell what it might it eat? Where might it live? What is its lifestyle?

Impossible questions? Not at all. Nearly every characteristic offers clues. You probably know more than you realize, once you observe the right things.

Bills are eating utensils and tools: knives, forks, spoons, hammers, chisels, pincers, nutcrackers, hooks, spears and strainers. Their shapes are important. If you were on a liquid diet, a fork would be useless. Eating peas with a knife - tedious.

And so it is with birds.

An owl would be utterly frustrated, and hungry, trying to sip nectar or grab tiny bugs, and a hummingbird attempting to eat a mouse - well, maybe in a cartoon.

Cardinals are seed eaters. Their thick, cone-shaped bills crack seeds. Sparrows, although smaller, have a similar conical bill. They're also mainly seed eaters.

Many birds, like wrens, have slim, sharp bills that work like pincers for gleaning insects from foliage or bark.

A woodpecker's chisel-like bill hammers and pries bark. Hummingbirds sip nectar and eat tiny bugs from deep in blooms with their elongated, tubular bills. The sharp, hooked bills of eagles, hawks and owls tear bits of meat and the long sword-like bills of herons and egrets spear fish.

Other long bills may work like forceps to probe in the mud. A nighthawk is an aerial vacuum cleaner with its wide-gaping bill, surrounded by bristly whiskers that funnel in flying insects.

The Texas coast sports some terrific bills. The black skimmer has an elongated lower bill. In flight, the tip skims the water and snaps up to catch a fish. The pelican's large bill has an expandable pouch.

The beautiful, pink roseate spoonbill swishes its unusual bill back and forth in the water, sifting food as it wades.

What about legs? Wading birds have longer legs. Birds that usually sit on flat surfaces, quail, have short legs and small feet. The thick legs, feet and sharp claws of raptors, hawks and owls, are necessary for hunting, carrying and tearing.

Even toes are important. How many are there? Are they plump, thin, webbed, lobed, long or short? A perching bird, such as the mockingbird, has three toes forward and one back to grasp and lock around a branch. A climber, such as the woodpecker, has two toes forward and two back, for balance moving up and down a surface.

The odd looking lobed toes of the American coot help it walk through muddy places.

A jacana has extremely long, spidery toes that spread its weight evenly. It can walk across lily pads.

How does the bird take off, fly and land? Flycatchers dart out and back (sally) to the same branch hunting flying insects.

Ducks that usually tip up to feed (puddle ducks) jump from the water. Ducks that dive for food patter along the water surface to lift off.

One of the most extraordinary things about unique traits in the natural world is they often let creatures share a habitat without competing for the same types of food. It's more than color or sounds. The clues are there for you.

Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.

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