These two pictures were taken of two separate examples of a bird called an Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga). These large birds are very interesting. Other common names for them are water-turkey or snake-bird. They live in the southern United States, Cuba, Mexico, Grenada, and northern South America. They typically live close to freshwater and are rarely seen near salt water except during periods of drought. The males (second picture) are all black with white patterning on the back of the wings and on the tip of the long tail. The females (first picture) can be identified by the brown neck, but the rest of their body is the same. These birds do migrate and have been shown to move due to the availability of sunlight that they need to keep them warm and dry. They travel much like the Turkey Vulture that I mentioned in an earlier post, by using thermals and air pockets to soar higher. This way they do not have to use a lot of energy flapping their wings and can travel long distances without doing so if the conditions are right. They can be spotted flying in “kettles” (large masses of birds using thermals to migrate) with other birds, such as hawks, vultures, and eagles. They will stand out as looking like a “flying cross” because of their long tail and long neck which they stick strait out in flight.
These birds have a pretty distinct feeding behavior and traits that make it possible. Unlike ducks, which have waterproof feathers that keep them buoyant, these birds have feathers that let water in to better help them with diving. This is good for this bird because the way it gets food is by diving and actively chasing the food underwater. Their bones are also a little denser than other birds allowing them to be heavier in the water, helping them stay underwater. A consequence of this is that they do not float, so when you see one of these birds surface you will only see its head and long neck. Many people have thought that when the bird is like this it looks like a snake swimming out of the water ready to strike, giving it the name “snake-bird.” This also makes the bird heavier and hinders flight. To combat this, you will see these birds sitting during the day for hours in the sun with their wings out drying their feathers to make flight easier. These birds are piscivores, which means they eat mostly fish. The way they catch these fish is by diving under the water and spearing them with their sharp beak, then surfacing and flipping the fish into their mouths and swallowing them head first.
These birds are always cool to watch and will spend hours around a body of water hunting for fish or sunning. They have steady numbers in their range and are not under any conservation concern at this time. There are some human threats to this species of bird. These birds can get caught up in fishing gear that is not properly disposed of. Due to their similar size and shared habitat they can be mistaken as Cormorants, which can be hunted in many states, so they can be mistakenly shot by hunters. This is another example of a bird with an interesting natural history that we sometimes take for granted. If you ever find yourself in their range, watch for Anhingas if you are near freshwater, they are a magnificent sight to behold.
More on Anhingas… Click here