By Mary Lundeberg — NOTICING NATURE
On my first trip to Florida, I paddled my kayak in the Everglades and became fascinated by the beautiful black-and-white birds with long S-shaped necks sunning their snazzily patterned wings in the trees. They’re called anhingas, but these stunning creatures go by a number of nicknames.
Their wing stripes resemble a keyboard, hence the nickname piano bird. The way they spread their feathers to dry gives them a turkey-like appearance, hence the name water turkey. The name anhinga comes from the native Tupi of the Amazons and means “snake bird” or “devil bird.” Snake bird is still a commonly used name.
The female’s buff-colored head, neck, and upper chest, distinguish her from the glossy black male. When anhingas swim, most of their body is submerged and their long snaky neck pokes above the water. Their dense bones and wet feathers provide little buoyancy, which causes these birds to swim lower in the water than other birds.
With low buoyancy, anhingas are excellent underwater swimmers, slyly stalking fish and spearing them with their dagger-shaped beaks. After they spear fish, they bring them to the surface, flip them up and swallow them headfirst. Sometimes the anhinga spears a large fish so hard the fish gets stuck on its bill, so the bird carries it to shore and beats it against a log before it flips it in the air.
Their diet consists of primarily small to medium-sized wetland fishes, although they also consume some crustaceans and frogs. This makes them susceptible to red tide poisoning when they feed in marine areas, though most of their time is spent in freshwater environments.
Their cousin, the double-crested cormorant — a similarly skilled fisher, though lacking the spear-point bill — often hunts in salt water and is the bird most affected by red tide poisoning. More than half (353) of the 650 birds treated this year for brevetoxin poisoning at Sanibel’s Center for Rehabilitation of Wildlife were double-crested cormorants. If you see a bird exhibiting signs of red tide poisoning, such as swimming erratically, bobbing its head, etc., please call a wildlife rescue center near you.
To distinguish a cormorant from an anhinga, examine their beaks. Anhingas use their long, straight, pointed beak to spear their prey, whereas cormorants use their hooked bills to grab their prey. If you aren’t close enough to be sure, double-crested cormorants lack the anhinga’s silvery streaks and have a shorter neck and tail.
Anhingas mate for life and breed near the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts, usually roosting in colonies with egrets, herons and cormorants. The anhinga’s red eyes develop a striking blue-green eye ring as part of the breeding plumage. The male gathers sticks, leaves and twigs for the nest. The female arranges them and then lays three to five eggs, which hatch in about a month.
Both parents incubate the eggs, and regurgitate food for the chicks. Chicks are born naked with their eyes open. After they fledge at about six weeks, they continue to stay with their parents for a few more weeks.
You can see anhingas performing mating dances, building nests and feeding chicks at the Venice Rookery (more info at http://bit.ly/2HK57Dt). Watch them soaring high in the sky, riding the thermals.