This bird is nothing but a snake in the water

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The Anhinga resorts to trickery to lure fish beneath its “canopy” before feeding on them.

By Sharon Warner

The Anhinga is also known as “Snakebird” or “Water Turkey” because it usually swims with only its small head and slender neck above water, so there is a strong snake resemblance.

There is also the habit of spreading its tail feathers, and these feathers somewhat resemble the tail feathers of a turkey.

But, by any name this is an elegant water bird, with an S-shaped neck, that is found in South America from Uruguay and Southern Brazil to Ecuador, Colombia and Panama on North through Mexico to the Southeastern United States.

It used to nest in Fulton County in Kentucky along the Mississippi River, but recently it has been absent from that area. However, there have been three summer sightings in Breckenridge and Henderson counties in Kentucky as well as along the Mississippi River in Western Tennessee, so you may any day now start noticing them again in Kentucky.

This bird, 35 inches long and with a 45-inch wing span, is an extremely old species, with remains dating back more than 1 million years.

Very unusual among aquatic birds is that the Anhinga does not sit on the water surface, but instead swims around mostly submerged with only head and upperneck exposed, using its large webbed feet for propulsion and its long tail for steering.

Also, it sometimes spreads wings under water to lure fish into the shade from its wings, creating a hunting technique known as "canopy feeding," which is used by herons standing over the water.

Fish is the primary food for this fresh-water bird, and those caught are mostly less than 4 inches in length and slow moving.

However, they also prey on aquatic amphibians, reptiles, mollusks, leeches and crustaceans.

The Anhinga spears prey with its lower mandible, which has backward pointing serrations at its tip, to help catch its slippery prey.

The Anhinga seems to act underwater like herons and egrets do above water.

As a matter of fact, the Anhinga is like a curious mixture of other birds, with head, neck and wings of a heron, fully webbed feet and plumage of a cormorant and the tail of a turkey.

The general color of a male is glossy black, and the female has her entire head, neck and breast, a grayish-brown.

When an Anhinga feels threatened, either while flying or perching, it plummets into the water, remaining submerged for as long as possible.

Their feathers become very wet when diving, but not because there is a lack of water proofing oils, but because the microstructure of the feathers, allows water into tiny spaces inside them. The resulting loss of buoyancy helps the birds submerge and forage.

The Anhinga also spends a lot of time above water, spreading its wings, allowing the sun to completely dry its feathers.

Its song has sounds that are commonly heard from Anhingas. They are harsh guttural grunts like those of cormorants.

However, during courtship in the spring, soaring birds often emit a short series of hawk like whistles or squeals. They are excellent soarers and actually appear to engage in aerial play in which a group soars up so high, that they almost disappear to the naked eye.

The nests are placed primarily along freshwater and are colonial, with maybe 8 to 12 pair nesting in clusters near herons. The nests are 5 to 20 feet above water or the ground and have bases made of twigs, coarse sticks and dead leaves, with a lining of leaves or twigs and foliage.

The male establishes the site and gathers material, and the female performs the actual construction. The same nest may be used each year.

The female lays four eggs, and both sexes incubate for 25 to 28 days, with one brood being common. The young initially are fed regurgitated food, with the whole prey being fed later on.

If your wintering months are spent in Florida, you can expect to see the Anhinga swimming along with only its snakelike head above water or sitting on a swampy shrub with its wings spread, soaking up that Florida sunshine.

Then when you return to Kentucky, particularly in the western portion of the commonwealth, where there are some swamplike habitat, you just might see this unusual bird called an Anhinga in The Great Outdoors.


To read more columns about birds by Horace Brown, visit www.SentinelNews.com/recreation. Horace Brown is a civil/sanitary engineer, land surveyor and nature photographer and writer. To contact him or order a copy of Brown’s 2012 Holey Birds Calendar, E-mail whbrownpelpls@aol.com, call 502-682-7711 or write 527 Main Street, Shelbyville 40065.