Beaks and Bills
Birds According to Peterson
by Joe Meche
Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and is still active in chapter affairs.He has been watching birds for more than 50 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 30 years. He has written more than 100 articles for Whatcom Watch.
It goes without saying that birds are incredible works of natural art. Through millions of years of evolution and adaptation, the characteristics and behavior of birds have evolved as a reflection of their basic requirements. Birds have adapted to their ecosystems and the types of food they find there, as well as to the means of obtaining the food they need to sustain them every day. Within the greater family of birds, specialization occurs throughout the entire range of species.
Two groups of birds stand out as specialists, whose talents at surviving in the natural world are, to say the least, unique. These birds are found worldwide and most are common within their respective ranges. Local members that belong to these two groups are usually easy to find and are frequent visitors to feeders provided by their adoring fans. These are the woodpeckers and the hummingbirds. As different as they are from each other, they exemplify the contrasting variety of species in the world of birds.
Woodpeckers are members of the family Picidae and are classic examples of adaptive radiation. Their sharp, powerful bills are perfectly suited for chiseling into trees and tree bark in search of food, as well for creating nesting cavities, which in all probability will become nesting sites for a variety of other cavity nesting birds as well. To facilitate this chiseling and hammering, their leg length and foot types combine with their stiff tail feathers to create a perfect avian tripod from which to work. Their bills also enable them to drum out signals to attract mates or define individual territories. Much to the dismay of a sleepy homeowner, woodpeckers will sometimes use manmade objects such as gutters and downspouts to do their drumming. Each species has its own drumming pattern, as specifically identifiable as any bird’s song.
All woodpeckers, except for the three-toed woodpecker, are zygodactyl, with two toes pointing forward and two pointing backward. This unique design allows them to cling to the vertical surfaces of trees and walk up and down the trunks in search of food. It’s not unusual to see woodpeckers clinging upside down to a suet feeder to get to the suet inside. As you observe woodpeckers in action, you will be amazed at the feats they perform in an almost casual manner.
Another impressive adaptation in woodpeckers is the length of their tongues. Woodpecker tongues are unusually long and barbed at the tip to spear wood-boring insects. When their tongues are coated with saliva, they’re able to catch ants. The woodpecker tongue is set into two hyoid bones which begin at the base of the bill and end up at the back of the bird’s head. The tongue then curves down beneath the skull cap, over the cranium, down through the eye socket and forward until it’s just above the base of the bill – right where it started.
Local woodpeckers range in size from the spectacular pileated to the diminutive downy. One of the more common members of this family is the northern flicker. Flickers are large birds that are seen and more notably heard throughout the year. Unlike most woodpeckers, they are often seen feeding on the ground. If you maintain bird feeders on a regular basis, make blocks of suet an integral part of your feeding stations and you are certain to have woodpeckers stopping by to visit.
Hummingbirds are true marvels of nature and appeal to everyone, including people who don’t necessarily consider themselves to be bird watchers. The number of hummingbirds that we find in the lower 48 states pales in comparison to the number found in other parts of the Western Hemisphere, especially in Mexico and Central America. The majority of species in the U.S. are found west of the Mississippi and specifically in the Southwest. Their brilliant colors are a large part of their appeal and their ability to fly backward is unique among birds.
With most hummingbirds, their displays and courtship flights are a joy to experience. Spectacular dives are a great part of this ritual and part of the reason for the steep and rapid dives is the sound that is produced as the wind rushes through the tail and wing feathers. You might hear a hummingbird in a steep courtship dive long before you see it. As you might expect, hummingbird nests are extremely small and usually cup-shaped. They are made with mosses and lichens and held together by spider silk, which allows the nest to expand as the nestlings grow.
While we normally think of hummingbirds as nectar feeders, they also supplement their diets with small spiders and insects. The nectar they consume each day exceeds their body weight and they visit more than one hundred flowers every day. Most hummingbird bills are long and nearly straight and are designed for probing into blossoms where they lap nectar with their tongues. They open their bills slightly to allow the tongue to dart in and out as they feed.
Hummingbirds will readily take nectar from artificial feeders. The accepted mixture for feeders is four parts of water to one part sugar. Bring the water to a boil and stir until the sugar is totally dissolved. After allowing it to cool, pour the nectar into the feeder and hang the feeder in an accessible location outdoors. Leftover nectar should be stored in the refrigerator until it is needed. A red feeder is often a good idea but try not to use food coloring in the nectar. Some studies have indicated that the food coloring is harmful to hummers, and it’s best to err on the side of caution.
In flight, hummingbirds have the highest metabolic rate of all animals. Some species have heart rates as high as 1,280 beats per minute, but they are able to slow that rate to 50-180 beats per minute at night by going into a state of torpor. With their higher metabolic rates and like most birds that migrate across large bodies of water, hummingbirds store fat prior to migration.
The most common species found locally is the rufous hummingbird. The rufous breeds farther north than any other hummingbird species and is hardy enough to endure below freezing conditions on its breeding grounds as long as sufficient food and shelter are available. Given the whims of weather, early arrivals depend on early spring blooms as well as artificial feeders.
Slightly larger and seemingly increasing in numbers throughout the county are Anna’s hummingbirds. While the rufous migrates, Anna’s will spend the entire winter here as long as there is food. Some hummingbird fans have developed a two-feeder system for feeding them in winter. They place a defrosted feeder outside at first light and replace it with the other as the nectar in the first one begins to freeze. It seems to work well as the Christmas Bird Count numbers for Anna’s are on the rise.
When you’re in the field, casually or seriously pursuing birds, keep a sharp eye and ear out for woodpeckers and hummingbirds. You will be enchanted by these highly developed avian entertainers. As they go about their day, their behavior and zest for life are very exciting to observe.
Next Month: Passerines