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Eyes in the back of its head

March 14, 2011

When this post publishes I’ll be in Florida, no doubt going eye to eye with fancy wading birds. More to come on that soon, but this past weekend my dad and I headed to the pastures and horse farms of the northern reaches of Orange County.  The trek was ostensibly to chase a lingering Tundra Swan, a failure on that count, but part of it was to motor around this part of the region that I’ve never really had much reason to go to.

For good reason it turns out.  There are a couple lakes up there, but they’re completely surrounded by private property and thus, very difficult to access.  So the birding was pretty much a bust, except for the hunting American Kestrels along the road that offered the opportunity to gets some nice looks at a bird I see far too infrequently in the more developed part of the triangle.

This little male was particularly nice.

Once he noticed me taking photos, he turned his head.  I was initially frustrated; after all, photos of the back of bird’s heads are generally destined for the delete folder.  But I noted that he was displaying the “false face” pattern on the back of his head, a pattern I’d never seen so well.  You can see the dark eye spots, and the little inverted triangle giving the illusion of a beak.  This illusion is called deflective, or parasematic, coloration.

Lots of bird species show these false faces that give the illusion of eyes in the back of their heads.  It’s especially common among little diurnal raptors – pygmy owls are another famous case – for a couple reasons.  1) So that other individuals will will be less likely to steal food from a bird they think is watching and 2) so that the little birds won’t become prey themselves while hunting in open country.  The false face is likely to cause a potential predator to pause long enough for the prey bird to escape. Sibley has written on his blog all the species that show some form of this illusion.  Some might surprise you.

So not the sort of day I expected, but good nonetheless.  Reports from Florida forthcoming.

  1. March 14, 2011 8:39 am

    Great shots of this trick face, Nate. Thanks so much.

  2. Nate permalink*
    March 20, 2011 11:19 am

    @Jane- Thanks! I love these little guys, but who doesn’t?

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