The Pesky Beaks

by Rex Burress

I was watching that clown, the Western Scrub-Jay, flitting through the cottonwoods along the Feather River, and peeking into the small holes where starlings and sparrows nest. The claimants of those cavities were complaining, much to the annoyance of that egg eater – and baby eater! – and it finally flew on to other possibilities. As handsome and prominent as the scrub-jay is, it is often a pest to other birds, and a peril to anything small and edible.

The Tree Swallows were worried too. I saw them watching from their snags farther up-river, and they were prepared to dive-bomb that blue-coat who doesn’t show much consideration for its edible neighbors. In contrast, I had seen a pair of Wood Ducks inspecting aging, cavity-ridden maples at Bedrock Park, looking for a nest-home, and this time it was the pesky starlings that were creating the fuss. Everything is vying for a place in life during the springtime – a place to build the nest and raise the young.

While this fracas was going on, I noticed the beaks of those various birds. The beak is the defining appendage that verifies the purpose of each bird species. The scrub-jay has a hardy beak handy for probing in holes searching for potentially tough tidbits. Its straightforward, dagger-like appearance strikes fear in the hearts of smaller woodland dwellers, just as its cousin the crow, and raven, flout that hardened appendage. Don't let a crow bite you! They clamp down like a vise, somewhat on the order of a gull. As a former employee of a nature center – I know about the biting abilities of various animals, having felt the power of beaky persuasion a number of times.

It is amusing that the Chico Creek Nature Center in Chico, California, has a pet crow in a cage much like we had at the Lake Merritt Rotary Nature Center in Oakland. It is so obliging to friendly patrons that they have made a place where the sinister bunch of feathers can stick his beak and you can scratch the proffered head. The sign they have posted, “Pet at your own risk,” is proper because that is a temperamental wild animal.

As the jays and starlings and sparrows spoke their pieces along the river that morning, I could see the egret waiting patiently along the water’s edge, equipped with a completely different long spear of a beak. Its forte is spearing, or snatching, and it can flash that appendage outward in the flash of an eye. The kingfisher is equipped with one of those dagger bills too, but like most spear fishermen, other than the Anhinga of Florida that actually does impale the fish, others simply grasp their prey like a pair of rapid-fire pinchers.

The other extreme was the pair of Wood Ducks dabbling in the lagoon shallows. Their paddle-beak is more for spooning their grub than flashy catches. Most waterfowl are that way, except the mergansers and cormorants along the river, fishing specialists that have a curved needle at the beak tip.

The riparian region was full of thicket birds that March morning, industriously scouring the limbs for tiny insects, using thin beaks able to snatch a minute meal. The swallows exemplified that small beak approach, able to snatch insects on the wing by merely opening their mouth. How many insects does it take to satisfy their appetite? Like the hummingbird with its thin probe, both it and the swallow are spirited species entirely undaunted by the impressive flicker’s heavy wood tapping beak, and repeatedly power-dive it and anything approaching their nest. “It isn’t by size that you win or you fail–be the best of what ever you are.”

You think of the curved beaks the birds of prey use to tear apart the bodies of animals they have impaled, and you know that nature has provided for a diverse animal population on planet earth. Some eat seeds, and are properly fitted for that function, and others eat seed-eaters, and they, too, are adequately equipped. You can do an intensive study of bird beaks as no two species are alike.

For the bird watcher and student of nature, beaks offer an identification aid that is apparent from some distance to those who see species by the “Zizzz” of experience. A certain gesture, a habit of wing usage, the use of the beak, are all ways to help in playing the game of hide and bird seek!

© 2003 Rex Burress
March 5, 2003