Birds are incredible members of the animal kingdom, with fused bones to make them lighter and the evolution of feathers for flight and insulation, have allowed these species to evolve into the most glorious and vivid forms. Whether they are taking to the sky to hunt for a mouse, tucking up on one leg under the disappearing sunlight, or dazzling audiences with exotic courtship displays of dancing, booming noises, constructing bowers and marching – the diversity of bird behaviour is endless.
Some are marvelous nest builders, others are dangerous raptors equipped with talons for killing, some stand in glory as the symbols of countries, and others are fast runners, some can plummet into great depths at sea and many are made to just look so pretty!
Whatever their talent, Birds can be found on every continent and it is their unique ability of flight that has allowed them to dominate many lands. Migrating to areas more suited for their ecological requirements allows many species to leave behind cold winters and scarce food supplies which may have jeopardized their survival.
Many members of Birds are greatly adored, visited in zoos, kept as pets and captured on documentaries with many favourites taking the lead. Birds of prey, penguins, the ostrich, flamingos, parrots and those darn sea-gulls that are always after your chips are globally known. But what about those lesser known members? Surely there are some extraordinary members that deserve more attention than what they actually receive? Here are ten marvellous bird members that you may not know …
1) Yellow-Billed Oxpecker (Buphagus africnus)
This feisty little fellow, with its distinctive yellow-based bill tipped with red, unfortunately became extinct in Africa during 1910. The reason for its elimination was due to the hosts it liked to pluck ticks from, such as buffalo, giraffe and rhino species where hunted out. The only species left to retrieve their daily dose of ticks were from cattle, but farmers began treating them with chemicals that eradicated ticks, completely wiping out the birds main food source.
Luckily, this tick-eating bird is now being reintroduced to South America. As farming in South America is on the increase, to continue treating livestock for ticks is not only costly but difficult, so farmers want the effective Yellow-Billed Oxpecker to make a comeback. I guess only a master at parasite plucking can be desired for a return!
2) Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno)
During ancient Mayan times killing a quetzal was punishable by death! Why? Because the bird’s feathers were so valuable and unmatchable, they were used as currency delivering the bird great protection. However, the Spanish conquistadors killed this exquisitely beautiful bird by the thousands, trading in their glorious feathers for money, until doing so was finally outlawed in 1895.
Today, the population is still very low in numbers, but at current date, living as Guatemala’s national and unique bird has once again became a source of wealth. Through eco-tourism, Costa Rica alone receives 1 million people a year to visit their proud and pretty 28 national parks, specifically to see this endangered bird and its metallic green chest. The money generated each year from these activities is approximately $21 million for holding the privilege of showing off this bird.
Considering there are only 1,000 species left, having a value worth $21,000 for each head, should guarantee their survival and prevent numbers dangerously dropping any lower. It is just an embarrassment that protection is only offered to these birds due to their great economic value, rather than being adored as such a beautiful, pristine species.
Nevertheless, these National parks are extremely important to the Quetzal, as most of their forest habitats have been cleared to turn the land into raising maize, and with the threat of being hunted for their indefinable feathers, ecologists have predicted that these avocado-eating birds will be extinct within a few short years.
3) Greater Double-collared Sunbird (Cinnyris afer)
This is the vibrant face of the hummingbird’s rival – both strong competitors for hosting the brightest colours of feathers and the fight of the plants that provide that sweet tasting nectar. The only main difference between the two is that their eating habitats. The sunbird prefers to eat perched, whilst the hummingbirds are well known to hover whilst lapping up high doses of nectar.
Most species can be spotted by their imposing, thin, downward-curving bills which reach in and dip just perfectly into the crooks of flowers to retrieve that nectar.
4) Takahe ( Porphyrop mantelli)
This bright member – the takahe, a large flightless bird, is found only in the unblemished Fiordland areas of New Zealand. Its huge stout scarlet bill which extends above its eyes spends day in, day out on chewing up tussock grass. The takahe leaves a trail of nibbled stems as it feeds, and it was this trail that led to its rediscovery during 1948 when 400 takahe members were found in the Murchison Mountains, after years of assumed extinction.
Once the species had become established again, the introduction of red deer concentrated takahe numbers as they grazed out the tussock grass which these plump birds heavily relied on. The remaining 190 birds have become protected, and with well thought out breeding programmes on several offshore island sanctuaries, numbers are slowly increasing. Recovery of the population is however, a very slow one as 80% of eggs produced have been sterile, resulting in no offspring. A reason behind this may be that the birds had become reproductively isolated derived from human pressures, resulting in genetic non-diversity.
5) Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin)
The face of this peculiar swamp-dwelling hoatzin most certainly looks like a blast from the past – a survivor from prehistory extinctions. In fact, this species holds a strong link with the famous fossil archaeopteryx, and like its ancient relative, young hoatzins have strong winged claws that enable them to haul themselves about in the trees before they develop the ability of flight.
The diet of the hoatzin is a very peculiar one! It digests fibre and produces cow-like dung! Consuming leaves of the moka-moka, it stuffs its massive crop full to the brim, and then perches satisfyingly with is distended pouch resting between its feet and the branch. The leaves ferment as the muscular crop pummels them into a fatty, foul-smelling soup, where all the goodness is extracted. The excreted remains are what provide the hoatzin’s nickname – the stinkbird! So make sure you don’t find yourself standing underneath one when its their time to go!
6) Snowy Sheathbill (Chionis alba)
This poor white soul is not a very likable bird. Eating absolutely anything, and quiet happily surviving on penguin droppings and stealing their eggs are reasons to be unfavoured. It devours the weakest young seals and will enjoy nibbling away at rotting carcasses. Spending very little time socializing with other sheathbills, this one prefers to spend its time fighting.
Although it sounds like a rough member that has picked up some nasty sounding habits, these ways of life has granted this member to be Antarctica’s only permanently land-based bird, so its method of survival really aren’t so bad after all?
7) Greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido)
Imagine this scene… Plains Indians dancing around a campfire to a thumping drum rhythm, crouching low in their feathered effortful costumes and feet stamping away to form clouds of dust from the evaporating soil. This scene was once real, a moment celebrating a love dance, and every compound found within – the steps, the costumes, booming song and the fiery intensity were all drawn and passionately influenced from a single bird – the Greater Prairie Chicken. This spectacular dance was mimicked from the rare breeding display of males during courtship. Whipped in orange air sacks and eyelashes, these bright males flashed off these features to attract the ladies.
Creating such an impact on local habitats, this popular bird ranged over millions of square km in North America, and sadly, just like the buffalo, was hunted down in huge numbers at an unsustainable rate. Even when hunting eventually calmed down, the prairie chicken had been driven away from its natural habitat due to the increasing lands used for agriculture.
8) King Eider (Somateria spectabilis)
A large applause to Iceland who took the lead in preserving numbers of the precious wild King eider. By running a multi-million dollar eider down industry based on farmed birds, pressure has been removed from these native birds.
When the female eider is ready to lay her eggs, she carefully plucks feathers from her chest and uses these to line her nest. The olive-brown eggs don’t realise how lucky they are, snuggling into one of the lightest and warmest insulation materials ever found.
This is known as Eider down and commands a high price to be used in top quality throws, duvets, parkas and sleeping bags. Farming these species may sound cruel, but it takes substantial pressure of wild bird members, and reduces disturbance during breeding seasons. The bird has also become protected throughout its range which has gradually resulted in escalating numbers.
9) Blue footed booby ( Sula nebouxii)
The courtship display of the male blue footed booby is a comical and stirring one. Strutting back and forth like a little solider in a high-stepping march is a great way of presenting those alluring blue feet. If the female stands unimpressed, he tries a little harder. He takes to the air dangling his legs and flapping his feet so she can obtain a better look. This performance looked very clumsy to the first men that witnessed this, leading to Spanish sailors nicknaming it ‘bobo’ meaning clown. Boobies have no fear of man and often walk up to them to seek a good investigation.
They spend almost all their time at sea, diving from remarkable heights for fish in the same mannerism of gannets. They also have great capacity on judging when flying fish are about to the leave the water, enabling them to be snared during mid-air.
10) Hamerkop (Scopus umbretta)
The Hamerkop name means ‘hammer head’ and its clear to see how the species got its name with its large, horizontal backward pointing crest. This species is a master builder and creates one of the largest nests known. Usually composed in trees near marshy areas, these nests provide a perfect viewing platform to catch frogs, tadpoles, fish and insects.
Working on such a large nest, the hamerkop can take up to six weeks before seeing final results. Working in pairs, they first lay down a platform of stout sticks, building walls on top and leaving a space for the doorway. To erect the roof they stab inward leaning sticks into the walls, pilling material on top. The interior and doorway are then secured with plastered mud and are ready to enjoy. Some nests have reached as large as two metres from the base to rooftop, weighing over 45kg.
This conscientious bird, is considered an unlucky one by Africans, and some throw stones at it to prevent them flying over their homes or settling on rooftops – events that supposedly foreshadow death to one of the inhabitants.