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Snakebird

March 25, 2011
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There is water practically everywhere in Florida, at least the southern half of the peninsula.  As much of it is artificial as it is natural, but when the aquifer is so close to the surface as it is there, that’s really two sides of the same coin.  When the creation of a lake consists of a ten foot hole and a little time, “artificial” is a loose and ecologically useless term, and even so-called “artificial” lakes are full of interesting birds, bugs, plants, and the surprisingly regular Alligator.  And given that my transportation options were largely limited for a great portion of my time there last week, the artificial lakes around the resort where we were staying were about the best I hope for.  But this is Florida, where even the trash birds are amazing.

The regular waders and swimmers were all in great evidence just a short walk from our room, remarkable both for their numbers and their variety, their color and charisma, and seemingly all of them coming into their amazing breeding costume with elaborate and stringy feathers poking every which way.  But I’ve a contrarian at heart, so my eye, and my camera lens, turns to the bizarre and fascinating Anhinga or, as latin-philes know it, Anhinga anhinga.  The bird so nice they named it thrice.

Anhinga reach their highest density in the lakes, swamps, canals, water hazards and ditches of southern Florida, though they’re found in the southeastern United States as far north as my part of North Carolina (they nest in heron rookeries in small numbers up here) and throughout the neotropics into the Amazon basin of South America.  They’re the only western hemisphere member of a family of similarly serpentine group of birds known elsewhere as Darters, all characterized by similar habits, plumage, and an absurdly tiny head.

It’s that head from which the specific name, as well as that of the entire family, is derived.  The indigenous Amazonian Tupi people called them ajíŋa, which literally translates to”little head”, and apparently had a real problem with their disproportionate dimensions because they considered the homely Anhinga to be an evil spirit and called it “devil bird”.  An unfortunate epithet, but not completely undeserved as the Anhinga, as well as its Old World kin, looks no small bit malevolent as they swim with body completely submerged save for that long neck, tiny head, and dagger bill.  It’s this behavior that informs their more regularly recounted colloquial name, Snakebird.

Snakes have a long and unfortunate association with evil things in so many cultures.  So much so, apparently, that even their mere association is enough to tar a simple waterbird.  I guess Anhinga never stood a chance, and that’s without even touching their creepy crucificial wing-drying posture and devil-may-care attitude, the last of which makes for some impressive photo ops in Florida.

Close up, when the sinuous neck is rendered soft by the thick, almost fur-like, feathers, the bird seems far from evil and you’re faced with the head of a bird so perfectly befitting a bizarre and exceptionally specific niche.  That bill, that lance on the front of the bird, made not for snatching like herons but for honest-to-god stabbing, is an impressive weapon.  Those small eyes, practically an afterthought when considering a bird with far more impressive features, glow an amber brown.  And the face is defined more by what is absent than what is present.  Notice anything missing?

Anhinga, like the rest of the Suliformes family that includes Cormorants, Frigatebirds, and Boobies, lack external nostrils.  It’s an adaptation for diving to prevent water from getting forced into the lungs, though one that makes more sense for high speed dare devils like Gannets and Boobies than black water residents like Anhingas.  Descent doesn’t lie though, and those airholes are tucked up under the upper mandible like the rest of the Sulids.   If you ask me, that’s far more evil than any reptilian associations.

Fascinating birds, and amazingly common too.  A combination Florida offers in spades.

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5 Comments
  1. March 25, 2011 9:44 am

    Lovely capture!

  2. March 25, 2011 11:44 am

    You write so beautifully, my favorite bird blogger.

  3. David permalink
    March 25, 2011 11:56 am

    One of the birds I look forward to seeing the most when I go south to Florida someday. My dad loves to describe them when talking about his trip to Florida.

  4. Nate permalink*
    March 29, 2011 10:16 pm

    @Kah- Thanks much! The credit goes entirely to the bird.

    @Jane- That’s so kind. Thank you.

    @David- They are amazing. I can only imagine what non-bird people think about them.

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