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SPECIAL BILLS AND FEET

For this project, we need a large, fairly complete bird book, with clear illustrations. Each student should select one bird that feeds on land and one that feeds on water. Study the birds you have selected, and report on what you have read, seen, or noticed about their feeding habits, and how their bodies are made to be able to find and eat their particular kinds of food. Pay special attention to their beaks (or bills) and their feet. Try to determine, before you read about them, why their beaks and their feet are the way they are.

Birds do not have knives, forks, and spoons with which to eat. They don't have any way of cooking their food, and they can't go to the store and buy it. Either do raccoons or koalas, or anything other than people, but in this project we are limited to discussing birds.

When I was a child, I had a pet owl. My dad made a roost for him, using a broomstick on a Christmas tree stand, with a 1/2 inch (diameter) dowel nailed to the top of the broomstick, so the whole thing was in the shape of a "T". Our owl was a Saw-whet owl, which had been injured, and we rescued him. We knew that owls usually eat small rodents, but we weren't about to let mice run around the kitchen just so "Screecher" would have something to catch, kill, and eat. We gave him beef stew, cut into cubes, and of course, we didn't cook it for him. He had four long toes, with very sharp claws. He had a sturdy, curved beak that was also very sharp. He would stand on one foot, with his toes wrapped around his dowel; his other foot would hold his cube of beef. He would bring up his foot and bend down his body, grasp the beef with his beak, hold on for dear life with his claws, and tear off a bite of beef. To show us how strong his beak was, my dad put a pencil up close to his beak. Screecher bit it, and it broke immediately. We were able to observe that his toes wrapped around his dowel easily, and strongly (he never fell off); his claws could hold his food securely, and his beak could bite and tear in a most fearsome manner.

I have a friend who raises falcons. They are similarly equipped with four very strong toes, but one goes toward the back, and three toward the front. The center front toe is the longest. The back toe and the inside front toe work almost like our thumb and fore-finger, with the inside front toe being the strongest. Falcons can rest (and sleep) on flat surfaces or on branches. They, like the owls, sleep standing on one foot, with the other foot tucked up. Falcons eat smaller birds, ducks, and rodents (even rabbits!). They have strong beaks, made for tearing their food. They often hold their food with both feet, and tear at it with their beaks.

We have all seen parrots, at least in the pet shop. They have long toes for wrapping around a branch (or dowel), and short, sturdy, curved beaks for cracking nuts.

Finches are tiny, cute little birds; some of them are quite colorful. They eat tiny insects and small seeds. They have to crack the hulls on the seeds, so their beaks have sharp edges. However, their beaks are straight, and thin. They don't need big, hulking falcon-beaks, since they don't have to tear live prey.

Ducks have webbed feet, so they can swim. Those rubber "swim fins" that people use for scuba diving are made rather like duck's feet. They can push aside the water very efficiently. Their bills are long, wide, and rather flat so that they can skim the water for insects and small fish. Their webbed feet aren't worth a darn for holding onto branches, and they aren't much good for walking. They sleep on the shore, usually in some bushes, standing on one foot. Their bills couldn't crack a nut, bore a hole in a tree, or tear at a mouse, but they work wonderfully at their purpose.

I once had ducks, geese, chickens, pigeons, and doves in my back yard. It was wonderful! There was a mama Mallard duck, who sat on 6 eggs one spring. When they hatched, there were four ducklings and two chicks! She put them all into the water. The ducklings knew what to do, and they had tiny, webbed feet so they could swim well. The baby chickens had four separate, tiny toes, that were not good for swimming. They were frightened the first time, and peeped loudly. They spread their little wings, and floated on the water. They got used to the water, and would go in when the mama duck would push them, and they could climb out when they wanted. They thought the male and female Mallards were their parents, and they stayed with them all the time. I called them "chucks," which could mean part chicken and part duck. They actually were chickens who thought they were ducks! They never hung around with the chickens. They could not skim food out of the water because they had narrow, round beaks. I fed cracked corn, and other grains, to all the birds. Had the chicks been hatched under a duck in the wild, I don't know how they would have learned to find food.

Pelicans have marvelous beaks. Their beaks are very big-- well, pelicans are big birds--and they have a "pantry" on the underside. That's where they store the fish they've caught, until they catch enough for their needs (or for the needs of their babies). The pouch is somewhat stretchy, and as they fill it, it gets larger. Their feet are webbed, like duck's feet, for swimming, and walking in mud.

Then there are wading birds, like cranes, flamingos, and ibises. They have very long legs, for walking in shallow water. We'll have to read about them to learn more.

 
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