On one of my outings this year, I encountered a Great Blue Heron. Often one sees a heron standing still and regal, elegantly waiting for the moment to strike at an unsuspecting victim in the water at its feet. Not this one. It stood on the edge of the Goffle Brook, opening and closing its mouth. I took my photos, as I usually do, in the heat of the moment and while the constant mouth movements did seem a bit unusual, I didn’t think too much about it until after I got home and took a look at the photos.
Once I had the photos on a computer where I could zoom in, I took a really good look at the Heron’s mouth. And that was when I noticed how weird its tongue looked. Usually we think of tongues like our own, a relatively smooth, flat muscle. Not the Heron’s tongue. While the tip was long and thin, the farther back into the bird’s mouth it went, the more grooved and angled it seemed to become. Besides the angles, it had more than one section that was raised, with curves and edges going in several directions. I found the irregular shape interesting and began to wonder why it was formed in such a way. So I decided to do a little research into why a Heron’s tongue is shaped the way it is.
It turns out that not only do birds have tongues that are very different from those of a human, they actually can have very different types of tongues from other birds. The type of tongue a bird has, just like the type of bill or beak, is directly related to what they eat and how they eat it. Nectar collectors like hummingbirds have tongues that differ from woodpeckers or fish eating birds. This is because birds do not have teeth, and therefore their tongues need to take on extra functions that a human tongue would not. Another big difference from human tongues is that most bird’s tongues are not involved in their vocalization or sound making. However, birds do have taste buds, though far fewer than humans. The exact amount of taste buds differs greatly by bird species.
Many fishing birds have tongues with hooks or spikes to help contain their captured fish. But a Heron’s tongue is different from other fish eating birds, like Cormorants or Pelicans, because it also eats amphibians, reptiles, insects and small mammals. Unlike woodpeckers and other birds with long tongues, Herons’ tongues are attached below the mandible bone and are more limited in the their movement. However, this is to their advantage, as it allows more room in their mouth for them to swallow large items. Herons swallow fish and other food whole, and sometimes they regurgitate up to a dozen fish when they are feeding young. So what they need is a tongue that won’t get in the way. Their tongues are shaped not only to allow fish to be swallowed whole, but also to be turned in the bird’s mouth and eaten head first. So now when I see the pink on the inside of a bird’s mouth, I think I will pay a bit more attention. Bird tongues turned out to be much more complicated and interesting than I expected and they can tell the bird watcher a lot about a species, if you know what to look for.
The ruling houses of Europe have long had a tradition of keeping menageries. Presents of exotic animals were a common gift to the crowned heads of Europe for hundreds of years. In 1235, Henry III began a zoo at the Tower of London, which housed the Royal menagerie until 1835. If you visit the Tower today, besides the royal armor and the crowned jewels, you will have the opportunity to see a variety of animal sculptures, installed to remind visitors of London’s first zoo.
Given the existing legacy of animal gifts to aid diplomacy between nations, it will probably not surprise readers that this custom carries on today. The Queen has a collection of exotic birds. But rather than being banished to the Tower, many of them are happily installed in St. James Park. Situated between Buckingham Palace, the Mall and Whitehall, St. James Park is firmly seated in the tourist district.
The park contains a large lake, which extends almost the full length of the grounds, making it an ideal home for many varieties of birds, including waterfowl. However, Duck Island, on the eastern side of the lake has officially been designated a nature reserve for the collection of birds that live in the park. My one regret about my visit to St. James Park in 2018 is that I did not have my long lens. So please bear with me as the photos I am going to share in this post were taken on my phone.
Easily the most notable, feathered inhabitants of St. James Park are the great white pelicans. Noted as “the famous pelicans” on the official map of the park (see link below) they never fail to draw a crowd. The pelicans, of which there are at least ten, have all been gifts to Queen Elizabeth II from the city of Prague. The first group of four pelicans were presented to the Queen in 1995, with an addition of three more being added to the gift in 2013 and three more (known as Sun, Moon and Star) in 2019. The tradition of pelicans being gifted to English rulers can actually be traced back to 1664, during the reign of Charles II.
A majestic bird that has historically been linked to nobility for centuries, swans have a special place in British society. It is commonly believed that Queen Elizabeth II owns all the swans of Britain. While that is a slight exaggeration, she does own all the Mute Swans that are unmarked and in open British waters. Apparently she only exercises this privilege over a section of the Thames where every year the Swan Upping (a traditional swan counting) takes place. This unique ownership even comes with a special title, the Seigneur of the Swans. With traditions and connections that go back to the Middle Ages, there are many British laws regarding the Mute Swan population that are still on the books. It wasn’t until 1998 that eating a swan stopped being an act of treason.
Given this strong connection between the Queen and Swans, it is little wonder that Black Swans are among the park’s population of fowl. Native to Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania and introduced to England and other parts of Europe and North America for domestication, there are now several wild populations in England. The Black Swan is all black, as its name implies, and has a deep red bill. At 45-55 inches, they are smaller than Mute Swans. Conveniently during our visit one of the white swans was hanging out with a black swan, allowing me to snap a comparison photo.
Of course not all the birds that have decided to make St. James Park their home can be classified as exotic. Among the fancier feathered inhabitants of the pond, you will find many which are commonplace. But commonplace for the British isn’t the same as commonplace for North American tourists. Yes of course, as you would expect with any urban park, there were Pigeons, Seagulls and Canada Geese among the groups of birds begging for handouts. However, there were also a few “common” birds that excited me.
Among the birds floating in the water were a large number of Coots. These Eurasian Coots are cousins to the Coots found in North America and greatly resemble them. Mostly black, these Coots also have a pale bill which blends into a vertical white stripe across the front of their heads. If you are able to get a close look, you will also notice their red eyes. However, one of the Coot’s most unique and identifiable features will be impossible to see while they are swimming. The Coot has very strange looking toes. Overly large, their gray-white toes project from yellow legs. They serve a very special purpose, working in the same way snowshoes do, they distribute the weight of the bird over more surface area, allowing them to walk on floating water plants. I wasn’t able to get a good photograph of their feet, but you can see what I am talking about in some of the photos on this site: https://www.beautyofbirds.com/eurasiancoots.html
Among the Coots were another black bird of a similar size, the Common Moorhen. The easiest way to tell these two birds apart is by looking at their beaks and heads. Where the Coot has white, the Moorhen exhibits red on the front of its face. There are some other, more subtle differences, including the Moorhen’s thin white wing stripe and a small amount of white plumage under its tail. Again feet can be a helpful tool. The Moorhen has yellow legs and toes that resemble that of a chicken, thin and much less interesting than those of the Coot. The Moorhen is also smaller, usually about four inches smaller than the Coot.
Standing away from the crowd, we also spotted a lone Grey Heron. An abundant bird which resides in Britain, it behaves similarly to the herons and egrets of America, stalking prey in shallow water. Very similar to the American Blue Heron, the Grey Heron can grow to be between 33 -41 inches. Its plumage is more muted and lacks the blue tint of the Blue Heron, indicating that while these species are similar, their names are appropriate.
There were actually quite a few varieties of geese cohabitating in the park. This included the Greylag Goose. Described as a “bulky” goose, the Greylag is usually between 29-33 inches. Considered abundant in Britain, where many of them reside year-round, the Greylag Goose adapts to many habitats including lakes and wetlands. As far as looks, the Greylag is fairly plain, being a brown-gray, with its neck and head plumage usually being a lighter shade than its wings. Its feet and bill are pale pink.
Next to the Greylag, the Egyptian Goose looks incredibly unusual. Originally found only in Africa, Southern England has had a feral population since they were introduced in the 1800s. Physically smaller than the Greylag (between 24-29 inches), the Egyptian Goose’s plumage looks a bit like a patchwork quilt. Its wings alone sport several colors, including green, brown, dark gray and white. It also has a light gray belly, and tan chest. However, the head is possibly the most distinct. Mostly gray, but with a dark brown circle around the eye, almost as eye catching as a black eye on a boxer. The brown circle is further emphasized as it is surrounded by a thinner flash of pure white feathers. Definitely not a bird to go unnoticed walking down the path.
Among the geese, I also spotted a mismatched pair of…shelducks. Apparently neither really ducks nor geese, the shelduck is a link between these two waterfowl. The pair that I saw actually represented two species of Shelducks. The bird featured on the left in my picture is most likely a female Common Shelduck, with a distinct black-green head, reddish bill, and mostly white body with a band of brown separating its neck from its torso. Its companion, on the right, was the slightly larger Ruddy Shelduck, most easily recognized by its creamy-tan head emphasized by the rest of its darker, brown plumage. The Ruddy Shelduck also sports a black bill and feet.