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Ten Texas Avian Originals

Meet 10 birds from every corner of the state that are fascinating for their unusual mating systems, bizarre foraging techniques, specialized structural adaptations and all-around quirky lifestyles.

By Noreen Damude

Why Are So Many of Us Hooked on Birds?

In The Life of Birds, David Attenborough sums it up nicely: “They are lively; they are lovely, and they are everywhere.” At once cheeky and shy, fierce and gentle, faithful and faithless, they have traits with which we all can identify. Birds play out the dramas of their lives in full view for all to see. We envy their power of flight, their incredible migrations, mind-boggling navigational skills, uncanny year-to-year site fidelity, their confident assertiveness and comfortable sense of self. A bird with an identity crisis is an oxymoron. A dickcissel is a dickcissel is a dickcissel and proud of it. And that we may envy most of all.

While it is a truism we have lost touch with nature, watching bird behavior in the wild, in our backyards — even along our city streets - allows us to reconnect with all that is wild and beautiful on earth. Almost any human quality imaginable is mirrored in one bird or another. As we observe the oft-times bizarre adaptations and behaviors of the birds that share our world, we gaze into reflections and distortions of our own, sometimes inexplicable actions.

Life is in constant motion, the environment an ever-changing world of winds and currents, terrains and temperatures. Birds have managed to master the elements as they fly, streak, soar and glide through realms beyond our ken. Most are agile and graceful fliers; a few, bound to earth or ocean. Eyes, feathers and beaks have evolved over time to best exploit the resources of their environment. Birds do not exist separately from their habitat. They are shaped by it and, in turn, help mold it. A woodpecker’s spiky tail feathers enable it to hitch up and down the trunk of a tree. Many nightjars, shorebirds and grouse derive immense protection from the cryptic coloration and intricate patterning of their plumage. American woodcock, common poorwill and burrowing owl variously rely on subtle patterns and vermiculations to fool the eyes of the most perspicacious predator.

Avian reproductive behavior is a source of never-ending complexity and invention, lying at the crux of the continuation of a species over changing times. The ferocious but rarely fatal male fights for supremacy establish who is powerful enough to hold down a territory and mate successfully. The incredible nuptial display of the woodcock on early spring evenings thrills us beyond words.

Elaborate courtship dances and rituals, the incubation and rearing of the young, who does most of the work and how species divide their time during each stage of the reproductive cycle are vital to the survival and continuation of the line. While struggles can be harrowing to watch, bluff often plays a greater role than brawn. Of course, in birds the act of love is but a brief - extremely brief - moment of cloacal contact. Most of the interesting stuff takes place before and after.

Social organization is as varied as foraging techniques. While some species are solitary, others form large foraging flocks to lessen the danger of predation or to locate unpredictable resources. Some species groups are actively cooperative, building nests and tending young not their own. Other communal arrangements seem riddled with conflict and subterfuge.

So, what makes a bird a Texas original — beauty, rarity, elusiveness, surprise, unconventionality or just plain weirdness? I’ve picked 10 that have always struck my fancy. I tried to find representatives from each corner of the state, focusing on unusual mating systems, bizarre foraging techniques, cooperative versus competitive behavior, specialized structural adaptations and all around quirky lifestyles, from the truly primitive to the highly evolved. It’s time to let the top 10 choices speak for themselves.

One: American bittern

A somewhat chunky, medium-sized member of the heron family, the cryptically patterned American bittern is a shy and solitary denizen of freshwater swamps and brackish marshes. In Texas, it is seen mainly in winter and during migration along the coast and locally inland. A few birds remain to breed in Texas, but most head northward.

Bitterns prefer wetlands dominated by tall, emergent vegetation that fringes swamps and shorelines. Most active at dawn and dusk, these birds rely more on stealth than active pursuit to capture prey such as crayfish, small fish, amphibians and mammals. The American bittern is celebrated for the deeply resonant series of clicks, gulps and croaks of its nuptial song, leading to a host of colorful vernacular names including “stake-driver,” “thunder-pumper” and “dunk-a-do.”

With boldly striated neck and chest patterns and bill pointing skyward, an American bittern blends perfectly into its marshy habitat as it stands motionless in the tall bulrushes or cattails. This freeze posture is so finely tuned that should a breeze rustle the surrounding vegetation, the bird will sway in unison to maintain its camouflage. So instinctive is this behavior that even when caught in the open, the bird holds its position in an absurd attempt to blend into the tall vegetation that isn’t there, giving excited birders a great look.

Two: Dickcissel

The dickcissel is a grassland specialist that proudly sings its name from every wire, fencepost or weed stalk in farm and prairie country. Very erratic in occurrence, dickcissels may nest in large numbers in one area one year and be totally absent the next. Biologists believe this to be a response to rainfall and its effect on habitat quality rather than actual fluctuations in numbers.

Dickcissels dine mostly on insects during summer months and seeds during winter. Males arrive at their breeding grounds about a week before females and sing lustily to defend a nesting territory and attract a mate. Typically polygynous, the male may have more than one female nesting on his territory.

Dickcissels are extremely gregarious, migrating in large flocks, often numbering many hundreds of birds. The day after a good dickcissel flight, oat fields, grass patches, meadows, weeds, bush tops, wires and roadsides resound with their eponymous song announcing their readiness to mate.

In wet years, masses of dickcissels drop down in Texas to nest where forbs and grasses, especially Johnson grass, sorghums and sunflowers, grow rank between widely scattered trees. After completing one brood, they move on through the Central Plains to rear a second brood farther north. When weather conditions in Texas appear dry and inhospitable, birds bypass Texas altogether, flying nonstop to raise two broods farther north.

Three: Burrowing Owl

A long-legged, stub-tailed habitué of open country, the burrowing owl occurs on shortgrass prairies, rangeland and airfields of the High Plains. Often seen standing sentinel near the entrance to its burrow, the bird swivels its head nearly full circle as it scans the plains for predators or prey. Cowboys used to call burrowing owls “howdy birds” because they seemed to nod in greeting as they rode by.

Hunting most often at dusk and at night, the owls prey mostly on insects and small mammals. During breeding season, they also will hunt by day.

To combat a host of predators, including coyotes and badgers, this small owl deploys a battery of defenses. To deter mammalian intruders, birds line the nesting burrow with dung to mask odors emanating from an active nest. Folktales profess that owls, prairie dogs and rattlesnakes all share a single burrow in close harmony, with the prairie dogs digging the hole, the owls standing guard duty and the rattlesnakes defending them all from harm. While it’s true these species are often found in close association, owls maintain at best an uneasy relationship with other members of the prairie dog town.

The owl may, however, have turned one aspect of the rattlesnake’s presence to its advantage. When threatened, owls trapped inside the burrow emit a loud hiss that sounds remarkably like the rattling of an angry rattlesnake. The burrowing owl’s mimetic hiss may be an offshoot of the arms race between predator and prey, a co-evolutionary bond marked by conflict and deception rather than cooperation.

Four: Loggerhead Shrike

This resident of semi-open country stakes out lookout posts on wires, trees and scrub, looking for prey. A restaurateur provocateur, the male loggerhead is a raptorial passerine that keeps a mean pantry. Exhibiting a certain boldness and ferocity, he well earns his nickname “butcherbird.” With its heavy, hook-tipped bill, the loggerhead watches from a wire or other high perch in search of insects, lizards, small birds and rodents. After capture, the shrike may not eat its prey immediately. Males typically store uneaten prey by impaling the carcasses on thorns or barbed wire, returning to eat it later.

Shrikes show an amazing memory for the placement of their victims: In Texas, shrikes were reported returning to mummified frogs they had stored as long as eight months earlier. A well-stocked larder is especially important during nesting season because it likely serves as a lure for a prospective mate as well as an important source of food during leaner times.

During recent decades, loggerhead shrikes have declined in many areas, especially in the northeastern states, where they are essentially gone. The reasons for this decline are poorly understood, but pesticides and habitat changes are suspected.

Five: Phainopepla

Sleek, black and glossy, the male phainopepla sports dark red eyes and a jaunty crest, with flashy white wing patches conspicuous in flight. His consort mirrors his image, but in softer pewter gray. Phainopeplas favor desert scrub, mesquite grasslands, foothills wooded with oaks and other areas where mistletoe clumps are abundant.

The phainopepla is specifically adapted for feeding on mistletoe berries. Whereas most birds use their gizzards to break open and grind hard food, the phainopepla has a thin-walled gizzard specialized for skinning mistletoe berries and extruding them into the intestine. There, the pulp is digested and the seeds are excreted intact in long, mucilaginous strings that adhere to the branches of trees. Here they may germinate and sink their roots into a new host. Thus, the desert mistletoe and the phainopepla have evolved to depend on one another.

Even during the breeding season, the birds subsist on mistletoe berries. The male builds a shallow, cupped nest, lines it with animal hair or plant down and hides it deep within dense, globular clumps of mistletoe. Both parents incubate the eggs, but males do most of the incubation during the day. At first, both parents feed the young crushed insects, but soon they switch them to their staple crop of mistletoe berries. The phainopepla is by far the greatest disperser of this desert scrub parasite. It also disperses the seeds of many fruiting trees and shrubs. Thus a decline in phainopepla numbers in areas where they normally occur could lead to a decline in many plants and the fruit-eating animals that depend on them.

Six: Groove-billed Ani

The groove-billed ani is an oddly disheveled-looking member of the cuckoo family with a distinctly reptilian cachet. Black and ungainly, with a puffin-like beak and long floppy tail, the groovebill is given to a host of seemingly inexplicable behaviors. Highly social year-round, anis travel in small flocks, feeding on insects in the overgrown fields of South Texas. When not foraging, they appear to pass much of their time at play, chasing each other from bush to bush in hot, aimless pursuit.

When resting, several birds may sit hunched side by side on the same branch, basking in full sun with wings outstretched, soaking up the rays. Anis forage mostly by hopping and running along the ground, often in close association with cattle, catching crickets and grasshoppers flushed up by the grazing animals.

Like acorn woodpeckers, groovebills exhibit a cooperative breeding system, but with a slight twist. From one to four monogamously paired females will lay their eggs in a single nest. Among these multi-pair groups, the females compete fiercely, tossing one another’s eggs on the ground and jockeying to be the last female to lay her eggs. Dominant females, typically the oldest, stop ejecting other females’ eggs when their own eggs make up the majority of the communal clutch. All females contribute to the incubation and care of the young, with the lower-ranking females doing most of the work. Males mate with a single female within the group. The male that mates with the alpha female plays a leading role in incubation and tending the young. He also enjoys the highest annual reproductive success, but doesn’t live as long as the subordinate males. Providing so much of the parental care to the brood reduces the male’s life expectancy.

Interestingly, survival rates are higher for communally nesting females than for communally nesting males. Being the top female confers both longevity and highest yearly reproductive success.

Seven: Common Poorwill

Nightjars stir our imagination with their nocturnal calls and ultra-cryptic design, and the common poorwill is no exception. Ranging across the western half of the state, this nocturnal insectivore with a large, gaping bill and short, rounded tail feeds on flying insects, especially moths, whose erratic flight the bird seems to simulate.

Roosting on the ground, the smallest of our nightjars is more often heard than seen. During the day the poorwill relies on camouflage to meld into the desert canyon leaf litter on which it sleeps. A poorwill with its eyes closed can be almost totally invisible to the human eye, no matter how close underfoot.

Come breeding season, the poorwill sounds a soft, whistled call that carries across the slopes on moonlit nights. Drivers may spot it sitting on a dirt road, its eyes reflecting brilliant orange in the headlights, before it flits off into the darkness. Its flight is noiseless, buoyant and at times swift. It forages mostly at dawn, dusk and on cloudless starlit nights, when the sky is bright enough to discern flying insects by silhouette.

During courtship, males call repeatedly to defend territory and attract a mate. Females nest directly on the ground on bare open soil, gravel or pine needles. The common poorwill was the first bird discovered to hibernate in cold weather. While most migrate to escape the cold, during a sudden drop in temperature the birds enter a torpid state for days or even weeks at a time, conserving energy with lowered body temperature, heartbeat and rate of breathing.

Eight: American Woodcock

Texas claims the woodcock chiefly as a migrant and winter resident, although a small number nest in East Texas.

With its solitary habits and woodland interior lifestyle, the woodcock is an anomaly among shorebirds. It is the perfect worm hunter and may eat its body weight in earthworms daily. With eyes set high on its head, the woodcock can spot predators even while face down in the mud probing for prey. Its organs for hearing are situated between its beak and its eyes, which may enable it to hear an earthworm’s underground movements. The woodcock’s brain is even turned upside down, making space in the skull for its outsized eyes and ears.

The woodcock’s most highly specialized foraging tool is its bill. Long, tapered and tipped with specialized nerve endings, the bill allows its owner to detect earthworm mucus in the soil some 24 hours after the worm has slithered away. The woodcock appears to rely on its sense of smell — unusual in birds — to ferret out subterranean prey. Most amazingly, the tips of the bill can move independently like tweezers, enabling the woodcock to extract earthworms with the deftness of a surgeon wielding forceps.

At the end of January the male woodcock performs a remarkable courtship display. With tail erect and spread, bill pointing down and pressed against his chest, he delivers a series of raspy, frog-like peents to lure females to the area. Suddenly the male shoots upward at a steep angle, circling higher and higher on whistling wings, more than 250 feet in the air. Leveling off at the top of his climb, he describes ever-larger circles in the sky, accompanied by bursts of wing-generated, chippering notes. This ecstatic sky dance ends as the bird twists, tumbles and then glides earthward in a zigzag path, singing his nuptial song.

Nine: Harris’s hawk

Harris’s hawk is a medium-sized, long-tailed raptor of the South Texas brush country, very much at home in thorny mesquite, prickly acacias and dagger-leaved agaves of the Tamaulipan thorn scrub. They exhibit a trait rare among raptors: these boldly patterned hawks are amazingly social in almost every aspect of their lives. Often seen in groups of three or more perching close together on telephone poles, Harris’s hawks even hunt cooperatively. Team-hunting hawks remain within visual range of each other to communicate the presence of prey.

Relentless hunters, they will dive into the most forbidding brush with reckless abandon to capture prey. A fleeing animal that evades one hawk may be caught by the next; larger prey is often shared by all the hawks in the group. Birds frequently nest in triads, with two males mated to one female, all three adults associating peacefully at the nest in full cooperation to raise the young. At nests with two males, both bring food to the incubating female and take shorter turns sitting on the eggs.

The young are brooded and fed mostly by the female, but most of the food is delivered by the two males. Harris’s family groups, like wolf packs, remain together as a family unit for extended periods, with offspring becoming full-time members of the hunting squad. “Simultaneous polyandry” is a most unusual mating system for any bird — especially for a raptor. Harris’s hawks hunt and breed cooperatively because of the efficiency of team tactics in their harsh and unforgiving habitat.

Ten: Acorn Woodpecker

A striking black-and-white woodpecker with a dash of red and a clown face, the acorn woodpecker is a common resident of oak woodlands of the Southwest. Living in small, closely knit colonies, they exhibit a complicated social structure and elaborate foraging techniques.

Come fall, members of the colony begin to horde thousands of acorns in a large granary tree, the focal point of the group’s fiercely defended territory. These woodpeckers drill hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of small holes in the bark of the tree and embed acorns in them for later use. The birds typically feed on ants and other insects during mild weather. Their acorn caches serve as emergency rations during hard times.

While not a pugnacious species, the woodpeckers protect their nesting hole and acorn caches vigorously against would-be pilferers such as jays and squirrels. Nesting is also a group activity, with up to 12 or more adults taking part in tending the young of the single nest. Core breeders consisting of one to two breeding males and one to three breeding females, assisted by several non-breeding adults, typically earlier offspring. Paradoxically, while birds all contribute to caring for the young, the mating game can pit mother against daughter, sister against sister. Females habitually snatch the newly laid eggs of their rivals and cache them in nearby trees where they are devoured by all members of the group.

During this “all-in-the-family” egg-demolition derby, the females jockey fiercely to end up as the bird with the highest number of eggs in the communal nest. This curious blend of cooperation, competition and subterfuge ultimately confers greater overall reproductive success on communal nesting birds than on solitary nesters.

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