Latest For the Birds column: Looking at birds’ bills

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Blue Heron stands in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Great Blue Heron stands in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2017.

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several newspapers in New England.

Although I’ve made this claim with many birds over the years, the great blue heron stands as one of my favorite birds.

My “favorite” bird may vary depending on the season and what I’ve recently photographed, but a few species have long been “one of my favorites.” Hooded and common mergansers, common loons, wood ducks and American oystercatchers stand alongside the great blue heron in that category. Of course I love all birds – well, most of them anyway — but these stand out for me, regardless of how many I’ve seen over the years.

It’s probably just a coincidence but with the exception of the wood duck, each of the birds I mentioned have extraordinary bills. Mergansers have serrated bills for holding onto fish and other creatures they catch. It’s difficult to see the serrated edges of the bill when you are casually looking at these birds, but when you see a closeup photograph of one, the design is an evolutionary marvel.

Loons have thick strong bills for their size. Again, it may not be very apparent when you see one in the distance, but when you see one closeup or study a photo carefully, the bill is indeed impressive.

American oystercatchers, of course, have one of the best bills going. In fact, the very name of the species comes from the bill’s ability to crack open shells that other shorebirds can only dream of. On top of that, the bill is a bright reddish-orange as if the bird just put on a fresh layer of lipstick.

Great blue herons, as seen in the accompanying photo, have a most impressive bill as well. It’s a good thing, too, because such a statuesque bird would look silly without the imposing bill to go with it. Looking good to humans, of course, is not the purpose of a bird’s bill, but rather utility in obtaining food.

The great blue heron has a long, thick strong bill for snapping up smaller prey such as frogs and impaling larger prey such as fish. All herons and egrets have impressive bills relative to their overall appearance. The great blue heron sticks out for me because I’ve been able to zoom in and capture some neat closeups of bird. When I look at the images later, the bill also stands out as an extraordinary feature.

Here’s a quick rundown of a few other amazing bill adaptions in the New England bird world. The red crossbill and white-winged crossbill offer perhaps the most dramatic example. Although it’s hard to see while watching the birds in a spruce tree, their top and bottom bills do not match up, but rather cross at the tips. This adaptation allows the birds to get at seeds hidden in pine cones that other birds can’t access.

Woodpecker bills, while not particularly impressive to look at, are strong enough to withstand the daily beatings the birds put them through. They hollow out holes in trees for crying out loud. Imagine how strong the bills must be to withstand that. I know, many homeowners aren’t so impressed when they hollow out holes in siding, but it’s still an amazing feat.

Joining American oystercatchers as shorebirds with impressive bills are whimbrels, curlews and American woodcocks. Whimbrels and curlews are not commonly seen in New England, but they attract a crowd of birders when they do show up. Woodcocks are considered shorebirds, but they are more often seen inland in fields and woods. They use their long bill to dig into the earth to suck out worms.

Northern shovelers are ducks with very unique bills. The flattened, spoon-shaped bill is designed specifically for its foraging needs.

Finally, although not seen by many New Englanders, Atlantic puffins have large, vertically flattened bills that also happen to be very colorful. To me anyway, it’s one of the most impressive bills in all of New England.

There I go again, being noncommittal with that “one of the most” phrase again. If the birds in New England were not so varied and spectacular in their own ways, maybe I could settle on just one. It’s a good problem to have, for sure.

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