Types of Ducks Series: Defining Duck

Before I started bird watching I don’t think I realized just how many variety of ducks there are in North America. I am not talking about waterfowl in general, but specifically ducks. I think when you say duck, most people think of two things, the Mallard, with his green head and yellow bill or they think of the yellow rubber ducky in their bathtub. But there are well over a hundred varieties of ducks in the world, thirty-one common enough to be listed in my Eastern North America guide. Over the next several posts I would like to take a closer look at these different species and what makes them each unique.

Before we can examine their differences, we need to establish just what qualifies waterfowl as a duck? There are four main behaviors and four major physical features that define a duck. To be classified as a duck, the species must tick all eight boxes.

The behaviors that define a duck include how it breeds, eats, flies, and quacks. Unlike other varieties of birds, ducks often breed across different varieties, creating hybrid ducklings sometimes with both wild and domestic parentage. This is perhaps not that difficult to believe. Many duck varieties will join together in one large flock, especially in winter. It seems they are drawn to each other by their similarities.

With regards to feeding, ducks usually eat one of two ways, they are either diving ducks or dabbling ducks. Dabbling is when a duck tips itself upside down in the water, with its back side still visible on the surface. Diving ducks behave similar to cormorants, penguins and other water birds, completely submerging in search of nourishment.

When it comes to flying, ducks are the original inventors of vertical take-off. While other waterfowl require space for a runway, ducks can usually take off almost vertically, regardless of whether they are on land or in the water. Unlike geese and other waterfowl, you will rarely see a duck glide unless it is landing. Instead notice the quick and regular flapping of their wings, which is how they keep themselves in the air.

As anyone who has ever heard a wooden duck call will know, most ducks don’t really “quack, quack” outside of nursery rhymes and children’s books. What is different about their communication is that among duck species, it is the female rather than the male that makes most of the noise. The males do get louder during mating season, but the rest of the year it is the females who dominate the conversation.

The physical characteristics that define a duck include its body type, bill, feet and plumage. All ducks have an oval body, although the extent of how oval does vary between types. Along with being oval, duck bodies also tend to be compact, which helps them to retain heat and aids swimming. Another characteristic common among ducks is the location of their legs, often located towards their tail. While this placement plays a role in creating their awkward waddle on land, it provides more power when in the water.

Aside from their placement on a duck’s body, the feet of a duck are themselves a defining feature. Wide and heavily webbed, a duck’s feet are two important tools for swimming and diving. Despite the webbing, usually three distinct “toes” or bone structures can be distinguished. These toes often terminate with nails or talons.

While duck bills do vary greatly among species, often being different colors, size and shape, a flat, broad bill is common to all. The bill, differs from a beak in that it can function as a strainer and ladle, a helpful feature for birds that feed on aquatic vegetation. Bills often have lamellae on the sides. Sometimes mistaken for teeth, these comb-like structures help filter the water, similar to the way whales have baleen to help them filter water from their mouths when they feed. For a good look at lamellae, I recommend you check out http://www.thenaturalistsnotebook.com/our-blog/tag/lamellae

Plumage is key to distinguishing a duck. Both its structure and color help separate it from the plumage of other species. Like most birds, duck feathers have two distinct layers or types, contour and down feathers. Because of the amount of time a duck spends in the water, its contour or flight feathers are tightly hooked to ensure that even when fully submerged, the downy layer does not get wet, in turn insuring that the duck will remain warm, even in the winter. (For more details on feather structure you can refer to my Feathers post https://tailsofatwitcher.com/2020/03/25/feathers/ ). With most duck varieties, the males and females have different coloring. The females are usually muted and plain when compared to the plumage of their male companions. The females’ coloring often provides for better camouflage, which the male’s bright feathers serve a different, but very important purpose: attracting a mate. However, many people don’t realize that once mating season is over, the male ducks of many varieties molt, replacing their distinctly colored feathers with more muted plumage that allows them to better resemble the females.

Now that we have a better understanding of similarities shared by all duck varieties, we will be better able to compare their differences in future posts. For the next several weeks, I will be focusing on different duck varieties that I have seen in the wild and detailing what makes them unique.

Additional Sources:


Make Your Own Birdseed Ornaments

I decided to do something a bit different again, just to change things up. Some readers may remember my attempt at making my own suet cakes (Keeping Busy During the Quarantine: Make Your Own Suet, May 6, 2020). This time I thought I would attempt to make smaller morsels and I found my inspiration on the National Audobon Society’s Instagram. On December 21st 2020 they posted a video with an easy birdseed ornament recipe, so I decided to test it out.

1 Tablespoon of unflavored Gelatin

I still had a heap of gelatin from my suet cake experiment. It was actually a relief to use some of it, as I won’t be cooking it for human consumption, my husband being a vegetarian. A tablespoon ended up being two packets (7 grams each).

2 Tablespoons of cold water- sit one minute

I am not sure if you are supposed to stir the gelatin in the cold water, but I did. It resulted in some lumps and clumps.

1/3 cup of boiling water- stir until dissolved

While I stirred I made sure to knead the lumps. This broke them up and make for a consistent texture throughout the mixture.

2 cups birdseed-mix thoroughly

In the video they show cherry seed. I just used the mix I have, which is one of my own concoction. As I stirred the mix, you were able to see the gelatin sparkling and shining on the seeds, making it fairly easy to determine when it was “thoroughly” mixed.

Fill cookie cutters-press down firmly

The video shows the cookie cutters on a cutting board. I decided a baking tray would be easiest, and I used a piece of baking parchment to be sure that the surface of the tray didn’t get gross from gelatin.

The mix filled eight average sized cookie cutters, all between 2 ½ and 3 ½ inches long.

The video shows all metal cookie cutters being used, but I decided to experiment with a mix of metal and plastic cutters. I actually had the same set of metal cutters as in the video, and a very similar set of flimsy plastic cutters from the Dollar Store. For the sake of science, I made sure I did two the same shape (the star) so that it will be easier to judge if the material of the cutter alone makes it easier or harder to extract, rather than considering if the shape was a factor.

Refrigerate overnight

I placed them in my refrigerator. And there they sat, not for one night, but two because, well, life happens.

Gently remove from molds

After a bit of gentle coaxing I determined that the best way to get the ornaments out of the cookie cutters was by pushing the ornaments from behind, while pulling the mold backward. This worked really well with the metal cutters. The plastic cutters were a bit more stubborn, and I did need to apply a bit more force to separate them from their molds.

I managed to get both of the ornaments from the plastic cutters without a fatality, but I can see how the plastic cutters might result in more breakages than if one uses exclusively metal cutters. But after a few minutes of patiently applying pressure, I had eight ornaments, all ready to put strung up, each about one inch thick.

Pull a threaded needle through a thick area and tie a knot

Here I varied from the directions a bit, primarily because I didn’t want to bother with getting my needle dirty. I decided to try sticking a toothpick into each piece while it was wet, hoping that upon removal the next day, the toothpicks would leave a hole big enough for the thread to go through.

But once I removed the ornaments from the mold, it became apparent that my toothpicks had not pierced any of the ornaments all the way through. Once out of the molds I pushed the toothpicks deeper, finishing the job. The result was a needle shaped hole, and I was able to thread the ornaments without too much effort or muck on my needle. Upon reflection I am not sure the use of the toothpicks made that big of a difference. I could probably have used only one toothpick after removing them all from their molds and it would have been equally as effective. I used very thin, basic white dressmakers thread, which seems like it will do the job. Thicker string might be needed if you make a larger ornament.

Hang on a tree

Since I have bird feeders in my front yard and backyard, I decided to divide the ornaments up. I placed three on the feeder pole in my back yard (left) and five on the tree in my front yard (right). That way I figured I had twice as many chances of seeing birds actually taking a bite out of my ornaments.

Two days later I took a turn around the yard and checked up on my ornaments. The few in the back were untouched, and I think perhaps because they were suspended from the feeder pole, and moving around in the wind, the birds didn’t feel comfortable perching on them. (10 days later I did spot a chickadee having a munch). The situation in the front yard was a bit different. Only one ornament remained on the tree, one was on the ground, and three were missing, strings and all. I think a squirrel may have carried them off whole, or perhaps the deer got at them? I am not sure if deer would be attracted to bird seed, but I suppose they are a lot less choosy this time of year.

Overall, I was happy with how this turned out. It was a lot less mess than the suet cakes. I think the lack of interest expressed by the birds had more to do with my placement of the ornaments than the ornaments themselves. I would be tempted to try this recipe again, and maybe get a bit more creative with the ornaments. If I do, you will be the first to know!

If you would like to see the original source for this recipe, here is the link to the National Audobon’s video: https://www.instagram.com/p/CJENO1jltBP/?igshid=1awom8neetfrr

Winter Bird Watching

If you can stand the cold and have footwear you trust on the ice, winter bird watching can be very rewarding. For starters, the lack of vegetation makes spotting our feathered friends a lot easier. I really enjoy visiting the Celery Farms in Allendale during the winter. Not only is it close to home, but the trail never feels too difficult, even when it is a bit icy in spots. And of course, many of the Celery Farm’s residents stay year round.

The butterflies and the warblers might be gone, but in late December you can still spot a lot of wildlife at the Celery Farms. The Tufted Titmouse sticks around for the winter. While these little guys are easy to spot at your feeder, among the vines and leaves they can sometimes be a bit more challenging to see. This one was so preoccupied with its meal that I was able to get a few shots that really showed of the rusty red on the side of its belly.

Many varieties of sparrows also stick out the winters of northern New Jersey. On this particular day we spotted a White-throated Sparrow. Among White-throated Sparrows there are two color variations with regard to the stripes on either side of their heads. Some birds have white stripes, while others have tan. White verses tan seems to have no bearing on mating or any other behavior and scientists are not really sure why the variation evolved. As you can see, the White-throated Sparrow we saw displayed tan stripes along either side of its head. They are simply less vibrant than the white feathers displayed by others of the species.

We also spotted an American Tree Sparrow. I am pretty confident the American Tree Sparrow was a juvenile, based on its heavily streaked belly. The American Tree Swallow can easily be confused with many other sparrow varieties. It has a rusty colored cap on the top of its head, similar to that of a Chipping Sparrow. If fact it has been nicknamed Winter Chippy because of this similarity. There is a telling dark mark in the center of the American Tree Sparrow’s chest which helps to distinguish it, but you have to be lucky enough to see it from the right angle.

Woodpeckers are present in this preserve in every season. We spotted a few Hairy Woodpeckers trying to find sustenance in the reeds along the edge of the pond. I am not sure if they were very successful, but they certainly were determined as they kept pecking away. It just demonstrates how useful and versatile their talons can be, gripping the thin reeds as effectively as rough tree bark.

The bald winter trees also help to see further distances than would be possible in the spring. Therefore, we were able to spot this Sharp-Shinned Hawk perched up on a tree in the distance, the first I have ever identified. About half the size of the Red-Tailed Hawk, it measures about 20-25 inches. Notice the bars on its tail and the spots of white feathers across its back, known as vent feathers. The Sharp-Shinned Hawk likes to fly at a very low level where it can catch songbirds. It is unclear if it was just taking a break or if it was using this high vantage point as a lookout for dinner. Regardless of its actual purpose, the pose does give the impression of a regal personage, surveying its kingdom.

The Wild Turkeys that live at the Celery Farm year round are also easier to find in the winter. In the spring and summer I can often hear them, their distinct gobble shattering the silence of the space. However, despite their enormous girth, they really keep themselves hidden on the edges of the preserve. Their feathers provide a very effective camouflage against the forest. Measuring three to four feet, and usually assembled in a flock of several birds, it is hard to believe how well they can lose themselves among the vegetation. Again, the absence of leaves in the winter really helps one spot these birds birds.

The Celery Farm’s four legged residents also stick around in the winter. The deer are often less active, but if you look out along the forest floor, you are likely to see some furry ears peaking up. And of course, the lack of leaves also provides a different view of the mushrooms, and the remaining plants.

So bundle up and get out there for a winter walk…you will enjoy it!

Cedar Lawn Cemetery: Bald Eagle Update

I was inspired by a recent comment on my post titled Bird Watching in the Cemetery, posted on March 10, 2020 to provide a follow up on the Bald Eagles in Cedar Lawn Cemetery. After my initial visit to the cemetery to locate the Eagle nest, I returned with my husband in early April and we did spot the Bald Eagles. My husband got a great view, as we drove up. There was a lot of activity in the nest, as we believe we witnessed the Eagle parents changing shifts on the nest. Bald Eagle pairs share the nest building, incubating and feeding duties. As both sexes of Bald Eagle look alike (the female is only slightly larger than her mate) it is impossible to say if we were looking at the male or the female.

After our initial spotting, we walked closer to the base of the nest, but by that time, its occupant had settled down and there was nothing to see. We decided to take a turn around the Cemetery, get a bit of air and exercise and then check in on the Eagles one last time on our way back to the car.

As was the case with my previous visit, the cemetery was a hive of animal activity. We saw several Northern Mockingbirds, many of whom decided to pose for me as they rested on the various gravestones. Cedar Lawn seems to have a large population of Northern Mockingbirds, who like a variety of habitats, so long as there is an abundance of shrubs. There are shrubs everywhere, scattered among the plots, so the cemetery is the ideal home.

Woodpeckers are another common site at Cedar Lawn, given the large number of trees that are scattered throughout the property. This visit we saw a Red-Bellied Woodpecker, enjoying some early berries.

And one cannot talk about the cemetery’s inhabitants without mentioning the four-legged varieties. If you decide to cut across the grass, you really need to watch the ground. Groundhogs have found the cemetery a very peaceful place to settle down, resulting in the ground being pitted with holes large and deep enough to break an ankle. While I think nature and humans need to co-exist, I think I can agree with the caretakers that the Groundhogs are making a menace of themselves. In some cases their holes have overturned gravestones.

And, as I have grown to expect, the cemetery’s herd of deer were also present, lounging among the headstones as if this was the most normal place for them to live. I wonder how many generations of deer have been born within the confines of the cemetery. In April, you can see they were still sporting their shaggy winter coats.

Our visit was cut very short, unexpectedly. Despite the open gate, the caretaker drove up to informed us that the cemetery was not open to the public at that time. Only funeral directors were allowed in, due to the newly issued stay at home order. So we rushed back to our car and followed him to the gate, so as not to be locked in. Unfortunately, the Pandemic made it difficult for us to return to the Cemetery for addition viewings of the Eagles last year, but I am looking forward to popping into the Cemetery and checking out the Bald Eagles in 2021.

Birding in the Snow

If you are looking for a unique photograph, precipitation always adds a little something. Snowy bird pictures are some of my favorite to take, but in some ways they are also the most challenging. Not only are you exposing yourself, sometimes for extended periods, to cold and damp conditions, but snow can reflect the light in ways that affect the photograph’s exposure. While including snowflakes in the shot is part of the desired effect, they can sometimes wreck havoc on your focus. And then there is also the terrain. Walking in snow and potentially ice, especially with a huge camera lens throwing you off balance, isn’t always fun. But the challenges are part of what makes the experience all the more rewarding, especially when you do get that great snowy bird photograph.

In my experience, the best time to get a snowy bird photograph is after the storm has passed. If you are out in the midst of a storm, trying to find birds to photograph, you will realize that many of the birds are smarter than you. They are tucked away out of the weather somewhere warm and much less exposed.

However, once the storm has passed, out they all come, and they begin rummaging in the snow for food. The search for food can create opportunities for interesting photographs as the birds get snow on their beaks, ruffle their feathers and sometimes seem to be playing. The snow also sometimes helps you spot birds your wouldn’t ordinarily see, as they make more noise knocking snow of branches and other perches. Many birds also show up even more clearly in the snow, their bright feathers making it easier for you to find them in a white blanket of snow.

Winter is really when having feeders out in your yard can put you at a great advantage. Yes, birds will find you any time of the year, but winter is when they will need to visit your feeder the most and you never need to leave the convenience (and warmth) of your own home.

If you are like me and you really enjoy snow and snowfall, you might find yourself out amid the flakes. Just remember to keep an eye on your light exposure, be careful of your footing and be patient. I try to take twice as many photographs in snowy conditions, just to increase my odds of having one decent photograph.

So glove up and enjoy the snow!

Nature in My Backyard

2020 has been a very weird year. While the birds haven’t been affected by Covid-19 in the slightest, in many cases their habitats have seen a drastic increase in human foot traffic this past year. Trail parking lots that would sometimes only see a few cars in the course of a week are now overflowing every weekend and even fairly busy during the week. I can’t blame everyone for wanting to get out and embrace nature. Perhaps a positive, if indirect result of the pandemic will be that it will have created more nature lovers.

There are many discussions and opinions about these nature newbies around the internet, both excitement and concern that people are not acting appropriately (staying on the trail, removing their trash etc.) but I don’t wish to add my voice to the mix on that particular topic. The only reason I brought up the increased attendance is to explain that as a result I have not been hitting the trails as much as I did in previous years.

But, I am learning that you don’t have to go all that far to find wildlife in your own habitat. And I am not just talking about the usually attendees at your bird feeder. I mean wild, wildlife. Just this summer and fall there were notices about a fox, coyote and bear roaming my area (not together obviously). Since relocating to our new nest in July, my husband and I have witnessed quite a few more unusual animals and I am not only referring to our run in with the three young raccoons which I wrote about in July.

Since we had such a hot August, my husband and I made a habit of grilling and sitting on our deck after dinner, once the sun had stopped beating down on the boards. As a result, we often witnessed the transition between day and night. I am not just talking about the color of the sunsets, but also the more subtle transition as the daytime birds and insects start to bed down for the night and nature’s third shift starts to clock in.

One of the things we continually loved to watch was the emergence of the bats. They were amazing to watch, soaring through the air so gracefully. Often watching them feels like witnessing an optical illusion, as they seem to appear and disappear in the fading light. Unfortunately, even after great discussion and thought, it was determined that we don’t have sophisticated enough equipment to photograph the bats at the moment.

One night while on the deck we heard a loud commotion. Some Blue Jays had nested in the large oak behind our house, and they were clearly unhappy. We decided that based on the noise, which included a lot of rustling of leaves, that they must be trying to fend off a predator that had wandered too close to their abode. Sure enough, they soon ran the unwelcome guest off and we saw a large bird fly from our oak and settle in the very top of a large conifer a few backyards away. Despite the lack of direct sunlight, or perhaps because of the dusky lighting, we could see it very clearly. My husband ran to get the camera, and we took a few shots, which considering the lighting conditions, I feel it is fair to say, didn’t turn out half bad. After looking at these photos zoomed in, we can confidently say that it was not a hawk, but an owl that was plaguing the Blue Jays. As you can seen from the photos, the conditions are not ideal for identifying the exact species, general body shape and size being the only features we can use for comparison. If I had to make an educated guess, I would say it was probably a Great Horned Owl.

While we are on the subject of larger birds, just the other day a Red-Tailed Hawk decided to take a rest in the oak tree in my front yard. I only happened to notice it because I was on the porch, putting up some of the outdoor Christmas decorations. By the time I had my camera, it left its perch, but as luck would have it, it decided to settle in a tree behind my neighbor’s house, so I was still able to snap a few photos. After all, what is a long lens for? While the hawk had its back to me the whole time, I managed to get view of its profile, showing his hooked beak. The red of its tail feathers can also be seen, if a bit subtle in the overcast autumn light.

Of course, I would be remiss to write about backyard wildlife and not talk a bit about deer. I am used to seeing deer on my hikes. But until I moved here I was not accustomed to their brazenness. Since we relocated it is not uncommon to look out our kitchen windows into the backyard and see deer, only a few yards from our house or our neighbors’. On the few occasions we have ventured out to take a few pictures, our presence doesn’t startle them in the least. Usually they look up for a few seconds before putting their heads back to the ground and focusing on the task at hand. We aren’t just talking fawns or a few misguided does either. We have had bucks, and on one occasion a pair of bucks, without an indication that they sense even the slightest danger. If anyone needs to be taught about social distancing, it’s them!

Autumn Rambles

I mentioned over the summer that my husband and I had relocated to a new nest. Well, that was greatly due to the fact that we were expecting our own little hatching. Our daughter joined us in September and as a result our nature walks and outings have taken on a slightly different form. Instead of a camera bag full of lens options, we now have a diaper bag. Instead of hilly hikes in the woods, we have been sticking to fairly mild trails, usually closer to suburban neighborhoods. If I am honest, the choice of terrain really has more to do with easing myself back into physical activity, but we can blame it on the baby.

As we began taking the baby on airings, I noticed that my focus was greatly changed. When I even thought to bring along my camera, my photos were all of the baby. Nature had taken a back seat. However, that changed recently. One of our rambles this Autumn took us to Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve where we made a rare (at least for me) sighting of a small flock of Hooded Mergansers. I happened to have my camera on this walk, and just like that, the bird watcher was back! (I did/do still take an exceptionally large number of photos of my daughter, don’t worry.)

I really love Mergansers in any of the three varieties: Hooded Mergansers, Common Mergansers and Red-Breasted Mergansers. They are all just so sleek looking, and they almost give the appearance of an upper-class snob with their fur collars popped at the other ducks in the pond. Based on my observations, even the Common Mergansers aren’t all that common, not in comparison to Mallards, Canada Geese and other waterfowl that you spot in every park in the world. According to The Birds of New Jersey,Hooded Mergansers are not common summer residents in most of the state. They are migrants and winter residents, arriving in late November and can be seen in most places with water, although they are more common near the coast. They typically arrive in pairs or groups of about ten birds. Once in their winter quarters, they meet up with other pairs to form groups of between 100-200 Hooded Mergansers.

The Hooded Mergansers are easy to identify and, as the name indicates, it is all about the hood. Unlike the other two species of Mergansers, the male Hooded Merganser has an arrangement of feathers on his head that form a large and very distinct crest or hood. The male has a sleek black body, with some brown or rust just at the waterline. A mostly black head makes the white patch on his crest pop even more. The male can actually open and close his crest at will, using it to attract attention.

The female Hooded Merganser also has a hood or crest, but as is the case with so many species, hers is much less flashy or eye catching. Its feathers are the same brown and rust color as the rest of her body. Her hood is also not nearly as round as his.

As we continued our walk we were able to spot a few more treats. We saw a few Double-Crested Cormorants. It is not unusual to see a few of them at this preserve. Generally they are spring and fall migrants, but they do live year round along both the eastern and western borders of the state where flowing water is available year round. One of the Cormorants we came across must have just finished fishing because it remained poised on a rock, wings outstretched in the sun. While it might look like this Cormorant was getting ready to take flight, this is a common pose for wet Cormorants who need to dry their feathers between “flying” in the water and taking off in the air.

The resident Mute Swans were also present, their white feathers in stark contrast to the late autumnal brown of their surroundings. They didn’t seem remotely phased by a pair of Double-Crested Cormorants resting nearby. But at sixty inches, a Swan is almost double the size of a Cormorant, and therefore probably not really concerned about them.

We had one final sighting, a bird so small and plain we almost missed it. If we hadn’t been watching the larger birds, we might not have seen its movements in the water. A lone Pied-Billed Grebe. I have only seen one or two of this species before, always a lone bird. Like the Mergansers, the Pied-Billed Grebe is a common winter bird in my area that starts arriving in the fall months. While they are hard to spot, once you have seen a Pied-Billed Grebe, it is easy to confirm its identity. Besides its small size compared to other water birds (it is 13 inches to a Mallards 28 inches), it has a thick, stubby bill. When seen in winter the bill has lost its usual, distinctive black vertical stripe. Its bill is actually its only “interesting” feature, as its body is dark gray and its eyes are black.

I am happy to be back, sharing my birding adventures and observations with you. I hope to get back to posting more regularly in the near future, so stay tuned!

The Tongue of a Heron

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 Queen’s Birds

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.

For a closer look at St. James Park, you can have a look at the map: https://www.royalparks.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/41644/stjamesspark_english_map.pdf






Friends of a Feather at the Feeder

In honor of International Friendship day, I thought I would write about birds of a feather getting along. As those of my readers who have feeders will know, one of the great joys of watching birds in your yard is being able to witness their antics. Regardless of the species, as a group they are funny creatures. I personally enjoy watching them interact with their fellow feathered creatures. Therefore, I decided to dedicate this post to getting along…at least some of the time.

Little birds generally seem less territorial of feeders. They operate on a “the more the merrier” mentality. I guess when you are that small, a full feeder represents more than you could possibly eat. It has been my observation that most of the smaller birds, sparrows, finches and nuthatches, among others take a flight rather than fight approach the minute an interaction turns the slightest confrontational. This makes sense, given their size. I have noticed that the House Sparrows are also either the most forgiving or the birds with the shortest memory, because two seconds after taking off, back they come for another pass at the feeders.

With bigger birds, it really depends on who they’re interacting with. Blue Jays often use the strategy of crashing in and scaring everyone away. Like a fighter jet, they are in and out again before you are even sure what happened. In comparison, the Northern Cardinals just stand their ground and voice their displeasure, usually pushing up their crest feathers, just in case the rest of their body language hadn’t made their feelings clear enough to the transgressor. But the Cardinals are pretty unpredictable. Sometimes they are happy to share and other days they want all the grub to themselves.

Woodpeckers also seem to have trouble sharing. At times I can totally understand their mood. They are usually hanging from the suet feeder and they only just find a good spot, the feeder only just stops rocking and they are digging their bills into some good chow when suddenly someone lands on the suet and starts the whole thing rocking again. That would annoy anyone! Most times they grab a few bits and cut their losses but I have seen a few get a bit snippy with the offender. One spring a juvenile Downy Woodpecker got tough with a juvenile House Sparrow. The House Sparrow gave it right back, but he did have several brothers to back him up.

Mourning Doves are a gentle giant, usually happy to share with everyone or to clear out if the other bird seems the slightest bit tough. I have seen a few Mourning Doves push other birds away at the feeders on occasion, but it is really rare behavior.

Baltimore Orioles are another story altogether. It is like their beauty makes them God’s gift to the forest. They do not like sharing with anyone and they will fight for what they feel is theirs. Unfortunately for one Male Baltimore Oriole I observed, the Grey Catbird he was challenging was not really in the mood to be pushed around and gave it right back!

While the fighting is funny to watch, I think I do prefer when everyone is getting along nicely at my feeders. Much less spilled seed and more opportunities to get good photos than when they are all ruffled and flitting around to get after each other. I guess all we can do is hope that they settle their own disputes amicably and co-exist peacefully.