The Life of Birds

by Rex Burress

After reading two books on birds, Lords of the Air and The Life of Birds, I am saturated with bird lore. In fact, I have so many bird facts from prehistoric times to the present, that I can almost put unique body parts together in my imagination and construct a brand new bird of outlandish proportions!

Is that the way the original Designer did it? Although instinctively I believe in evolution, to believe the piece-by-piece theory, you have to believe in a long period of time to accomplish the end product. In reading a wide perspective about birds and how each one is wonderfully fitted to a particular habitat niche - how a bill on a crossbill bird became grossly overlapped in order to pry into pine cones - and how that alteration process probably took maybe a million years, a shadow of doubt creeps into my mind. "Couldn't that have been done in a lesser amount of time by an immediate Designer?"

I know very little. But I do know that nearly 10,000 species of birds have become established on earth and presently occupy a wide range of habitats all over the world and most of them have specialized appendages. I also know that birds feature feathers and the power of flight, at least most of them. In the murky picture we have derived solely from a few faint fossils, it appears that a stage of birds sported partly reptilian features, and there are indications that some small reptiles needed to get off the ground quickly where an unbelievable assortment of bloody-toothed-and-clawed weirdoes wandered over the prehistoric landscape. Appetites and sex apparently, as today, dominated the lives of the scaly giants, and the size of some of those beasts suggests an enormous capacity for food. Judging from the prosperity of dinosaurs, they were equally promiscuous!

Each species of bird has so many fantastic physical adaptations completely independent from other species that you can be overwhelmed with the wonder of it all. One thing generally apparent, however, is that bird species of the same genus have similar behavior patterns. Wrens in Europe feed in a similar way as wrens in America. Kingfishers all over the world dive for fish. Flycatchers catch insects in the air world-wide. Vultures sail in the sky. All over the world, a genus of birds operate in a similar matter, and retain enough general traits to identify the family. Birds have the freedom to fly and make choices, but they are bound by instincts to do certain things.

I'm only half way through Attenborough's The Life of Birds, but already I have enough bizarre behavioral tidbits to generate an unlimited number of essays. Some of those exotic birds in far away places have such extraordinary physical adaptations they defy description. Large beaks (toucan), long legs (secretary bird), naked heads (vultures), long beaks (hummingbirds), sharp claws (eagles), webbed feet (waterfowl), and spear beaks (anhingas) are just a sampling of individual characteristics possessed by each species.

Simply picking out two types of birds that are common to California as well as in Europe is enough factual material for this entire essay.

The swallow and swift stuff, for example, contains some incredible examples of instinctive behavior, including the fact that those wing experts spend most of their lives in the sky. The Cliff Swallows that swarm around Feather River bridges in the summer seem to be continually flying, snatching insects out of the air, dipping for a drink of water, and descending only to construct the mud-based nest built under manmade structures. That they would drop to the earth to gather mouthfuls of mud is a wonder in itself.

Then before winter returns, the Californian swallows disappear, and as we now know, they migrate to South American ports. At one time, as David Quammen researched, swallows were thought to hibernate underwater, and that European ouzels, storks, and turtle doves, according to the genius Aristotle, also hid themselves for the winter. The natural history errors that have been committed down through the ages is staggering. Even our father of classification, Carolus Linnaeus, may have believed the bird hibernating business, since one of his students, A.W. Berger, made a great issue over the fact that "Each season had its reliable signals, and in early September, swallows went to hibernate underwater." The world was indeed small in those groping days of environmental knowledge-seeking.

The swallow-like swifts are even faster - the fastest things on wings, some declare - and when the European swift migrates to Africa in the winter, it may not touch down to earth again until it returns to its nest site nine months later! An individual swift is known to have lived for as long as 18 years, even sleeping on the wing by ascending to ,6500 feet and locking its wings into long slow glides. In its lifetime, one bird may have flown some four million miles.

The other Californian bird - John Muir's favorite bird - is the American Dipper, or water ouzel, a term still used in Europe, and emphasized by Aristotle when he made that statement about "The ouzel, a peculiar semi-aquatic bird, actually capable of walking on the bottom of a river, might even be imagined to hibernate underwater."

Thus the European version of the dipper is very similar to the American species, and they both have nearly identical habits, foraging underwater, landing on rocks where they often sing and preen their oily feathers. The world is indeed small and tied together by overlapping habits of life on earth.

© 2001 Rex Burress
August 9, 2001