Thursday, November 22, 2012

Stout Snouts!

While recently trying to describe a bird that got away, I was asked what its beak looked like. I couldn't say because I really didn't see it, but this got me thinking. Do I even look at the beak when trying to identify a new bird? Maybe subconsciously, but not as a rule of thumb. I tend to look at size, color, wing bars, and habitat. Maybe I should, by design, make an effort to get a look at the beak. As this picture (shot in Arkansas) of a Brown Thrasher and a Northern Cardinal illustrates, bird beaks vary tremendously.

Cardinalidae is a group of passerine birds that are often brightly colored, and have large, short and wide, conical beaks. These birds are capable of breaking open large, hard-shelled seeds.
The bird most often seen in Newfoundland sporting an equally big beak is the Evening Grosbeak. (No need to explain the Grosbeak part of the name.) (These pictures were taken in the yard of Paul and Catherine Barrett in Goulds - the best place around to see this species.)
When I first saw this bird, I was really shocked by the beautiful colors and the enormous beak.  It is a tool of such crushing strength, so powerful that it can crack open olive or cherry pits. Just imagine doing this with a hammer. It would take a forceful blow. While I would not be inclined to put my hand too close to this bird, I think they are relatively tame. I say this because of a recent picture of a brave, young birdwatcher in Goulds where she was petting the Evening Grosbeak.
Another bird common to Newfoundland falling in the Cardinalidae family is the Pine Grosbeak. It, too, can break open hard shells to extract the sweet seed within.
It is said that on a quiet, windless day, the sound of cracking seeds produced by these birds can be heard across a significant distance.
Even the young Pine Grosbeak is well-endowed. Yet, like anything, it needs practice before it takes on the toughest of seeds. This family of Pine Grosbeaks was feeding in my yard in the summer of 2011. The immature bird was being fed from the black-oil sunflower seeds in my feeder.
Despite the ability to chow-down on hard seeds, there were many Pine Grosbeaks found this year eating the sweet seeds produced in the dandelions. These must be such a treat for these birds because they were willing to tolerate the presence of people in order to finish the meal. So where is this bird found? High or low? Well, in the winter, when ground seeds are not plentiful, it is most likely that this bird will be found sitting atop an evergreen enjoying the cone crop.
Then, there were the visiting Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (found at the Barrett feeder) who also enjoyed the  sunflower seeds. The beak, an eating utinsel, provides insight into the primary diet of birds. Nevertheless, the RB Grosbeak that has an instrument capable of cracking open hard shells also enjoys fruit and insects.
It is interesting that birds in this group tend to show up at feeders and often stay a while to enjoy the free supply of oil-rich seeds. This provides a great opportunity to learn more about their behaviour.
The Dickcissel, also in the Cardinalidae family, is capable of using its beak to crack open hard shells, too. I really hadn't thought about this, because this beak doesn't seem to be nearly as stout at the grosbeaks shown above. The Dickcissel (unlike the Pine Grosbeak that often feeds in the tops of trees) is known to forage the ground or perch on low, seed-laden plant stems. The Dickcissel is omnivorous and also enjoys insects. The shape of its beak is more pointed and enables it to enjoy more easily its favorite foods.
The Blue Grosbeak has a varied diet, using its large beak to extract the meat of seeds, often from plants and catch grasshoppers (its favorite), beetles and more.

I guess what all of this adds up to is pretty important: 1) The beak can provide very useful information about species identification; 2) It offers insight into the diet of the bird; and 3) It provides information about the habitat in which the bird will most likely be found.

Hand-in-hand with the beak, the diet provides clues about whether the bird will be seen in treetops, foraging on the ground or teetering on plant stems and seed pods.

Since all of this valuable information can add up to being able to identify a bird better, I will now ensure that when I see a bird and am trying to get a quick ID, I will undoubtedly include a look at the beak in the process.

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