Beaks and Feet – American Coot

American Coots – Somerville, Texas January 2016

The beak on the American Coot isn’t all that remarkable, but the feet of this bird species is quite unique. American Coots are more closely related to Rails and Cranes than to ducks. Easily identified by its plump dark grey body, black head and short, pointed white bill, this bird can be found most anywhere throughout North America. They readily intermingle with ducks on ponds everywhere even though they are not really ducks. On land they walk more like a chicken with bobbing heads rather than the waddle we most often associate with ducks. They require a long runway for take off much like a 747 must have a longer runway to become airborne. And they are not the most graceful birds once they have lifted off. In fact to get lift off, they use their wings to raise them slightly out of the water and then literally run across the water before finally achieving full flight.

American Coot – Personal Photo GKennedy
American Coot Feet – Personal Photo GKennedy

But this bird’s feet are worth a closer look. Their feet are quite large and have lobes on each of the toes. No webbed feet here. Specifically designed to enable them to walk on ground or in marshy areas where they scavenge for leafy greens, snails, worms, frogs, crayfish, and other bird eggs, these feet do triple duty….enable coots to walk on land, walk on marshy areas, walk on the water prior to taking flight. In other words….these feet were made for walking!

So just because a bird is floating on water, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a duck. If it walks like a duck (and coots don’t), talks like a duck (they don’t – their call was frequently used in old Tarzan movies) or looks like a duck (bills are pointed, not rounded like ducks) then it must be a duck doesn’t apply to the American Coot.

They are interesting birds, fun to watch when taking flight, and easy to identify. So go find yourself an old “Coot”

Happy bird searching!!!

Beaks and Feet – Roseate Spoonbill

Talk about a beak! Now this bird has a huge beak and its name gives us a hint as to its shape. Roseate Spoonbills are one of my favorite shorebirds and one that I seek each time I travel to beaches on the Gulf Coast. Their bills are “spoon” shaped, quite large and always makes me wonder how they ever manage to get food into the mouths of their young. But they do.

Nesting Roseate Spoonbill – High Island, Texas – Personal Photo GKennedy

Spoonbills are easily identified not only by their bright pink and white colors but by their distinctive bill shape. The shape of their bills gives us a clue about how they feed. Like storks, they wade through the water swishing their beaks back and forth seeking minnows, small fish, crustaceans and plant life.

Spoonbill feet also give us valuable information about how they spend the majority of their time.

Check out those feet!! – Personal Photo GKennedy






Their feet are adapted to enable them to wade in muddy waters where they spend a lot of time hunting for their food. They have three toes pointing forward and one pointed back and they are attached to semi-long legs. Think feet designed to support their weight so they don’t sink….. much like snowshoes  distribute the weight of a human walking over snow.

Roseate Spoonbills at The Rookery at High Island, Texas – Personal Photo GKennedy

One of my favorite times to observe these birds is in March and April at the Rookery in High Island. They join with other herons and egrets to build nests, lay their eggs and raise their young. I highly recommend a trip if you want to have an up close and personal view of these beautiful birds.

Happy bird searching!!!


Beaks and Feet – Harris’s Hawk

Harris’s Hawk

One of the main distinguishing features of any bird is its beak. Of course, beaks come in all sizes and shapes and are a great tool for helping us to identify what kind of bird we are seeing. Many times beaks tell us where a bird lives and what it eats.

The other very easily identifiable feature of any bird is its feet. Feet may also tell us where a bird lives. Different species have adapted physical characteristics that enable them to make the most of their environment. Let’s look at an obvious one.

A hawk is a hunter. All raptors are hunters, but today’s focus is Harris’s Hawk. They are known to be cooperative hunters which means they will hunt with other hawks in order to increase the odds of having a successful IMG_3491outcome….obtaining food. In the case of hawks this may be squirrels, other birds (frequently caught on the wing), chipmunks, snakes, mice, ducks, lizards, rabbits and probably a small dog or cat if the opportunity presented itself.

They have powerful talons with curving claws and when they spot their prey and begin their feet-first diving descent to capture it, the talons lock onto the prey and tighten much like a zip tie. So a hawk’s feet are designed to catch their food. Struggle as they may, the seized prey very rarely can escape the powerful grasp of those talons.

Their beaks are large, powerful and hooked which enables a hawk to rip and shred the flesh of the unfortunate small mammal that will be breakfast or dinner. Using this bill is a skill that is taught to their young. At first, chicks are fed by their parents. They rip the flesh into tiny pieces and gently place it in the mouths of their young. As the babies grow, the parents may drop a dead chipmunk into the nest and the babies begin pecking and pulling at it. This is a prelude to them actually being able to tear the flesh for themselves. The babies have to learn how to “unzip” the mammal to get past the fur to the flesh underneath.  Teenage chicks may practice pouncing on dead prey left in the nest. Once they fledge, these are all skills they will need if they are to survive in the wild.

I never really thought much about how birds survive after they leave the nest. I always assumed that once they flew off that they were on their own instinctively knowing how to get food and eat it. Not so! In the Raptor Family, the adolescent fledglings may be fed by their parents for 4-6 weeks or more after fledging. The parents encourage them to try to catch food, but if they fail or cannot complete the kill, then Mom or Dad will step in and complete the process or drop food for them. The fledglings are very vocal and cry loudly begging for food if they are unsuccessful. The parents are always encouraging them to try again, allowing them to beg for some time before intervening hoping that hunger will be the driving force behind their ultimate hunting success. Practice makes perfect.

Harris’s Hawks are popular with falconers.

Just as our children may need help after they “leave the nest”, juvenile birds also need help from their parents. My foray into the birding world has educated me greatly on bird behavior and I must admit that I have been totally awed by the majesty and wonder of it all.

Happy bird searching!!!