Feb 25 2010

Beyond Bounds: Anhinga

Published by at 7:34 am under Beyond Bounds,Water and Shore

Anhinga (photo by Kim Steininger)
Is this a water turkey?  Snake-bird?  American Darter?  Or Anhinga anhinga?

It's all of the above.

The anhinga has many names because it's such a strange bird.  It has a large fan tail like a turkey and a long thin neck like a snake.  It darts underwater and impales fish with its bill.  Its Latin name came from its common name which came from a South American (Tupi) word for forest demon.

The anhinga genus are tropical birds that occur worldwide, anywhere there's warm water, lots of sun, sticks to stand on and plenty of fish.  Those in the Western Hemisphere are called "anhinga."  The rest are called darters.

Anhingas eat fish and they swim to catch them.  Their hunting technique is to lurk and dart so they're specially adapted to neither float nor sink.  Often they swim with only their heads and necks visible.  To achieve this neutral buoyancy they have dense bones and wettable feathers.  When their feathers are wet, they get cold and must haul themselves out of the water and spread their wings to dry.  That's why they need lots of sun and sticks to stand on.

This, of course, means anhingas are practically unheard of in Pennsylvania.  I don't know of a sighting in southwestern Pennsylvania but anhingas do wander and occasionally appear in spring or fall along eastern Pennsylvania migration routes.  When found, the bird is soaring and on the move.  One or two lucky birders notice it ... and then it's gone.

But they seem to be everywhere in Florida, sunning their wings.  That's where Kim Steininger photographed this one.

(photo by Kim Steininger)

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Beyond Bounds: Anhinga”

  1. Kathy McCharenon 25 Feb 2010 at 8:06 am

    A wonderful place to see anhingas (as well as lots of other birds, alligators, and other wildlife) is at Wakulla Springs State Park near Tallahassee, Florida. The jungle boat ride on the Wakulla River is a “must see” for visitors to Tallahassee…Anhingas are one of my favorites!

  2. Barb Simonon 25 Feb 2010 at 3:47 pm

    One summer evening maybe 5 or eight years ago I was sitting in the early evening in an open air restaurant on a barge in the strip district of Pittsburgh. Our table was right on the water. My friend and I are both bird watchers so we really sat up and took notice when an Anhinga flew up and sat in the rafters of the nearby 16th Street Bridge. He stayed for a while, then flew down and dove in the water. The fun is to find him again once he comes up, because he will swim quite a ways underwater before surfacing.

    The first time I ever saw one was at the Pymatuning spillway. My immediate reaction was “What the heck is that?” So I made a point of stopping at the Nature Museum they have there, and there are stuffed specimens of just about everything that passes through that area, and sure enough, I was introduced to the Anhinga for the first time. Cormorants are similar in behavior and size, and I had to learn about them that day too. Ever after, when watching for birds on the river – if I see a cormorant or and anhinga – I feel like that’s a winner for that day.

  3. Anne Curtison 27 Feb 2010 at 1:16 am

    They are amazing! I saw my first in a lake in FL several yrs ago, just its head and neck out of the water, and thought it was a snake! Like Barb, I had to go and do research. What’s really funny to see is when several of them are drying off on the same tree. It looks like some old crone has hung her entire wardrobe of black rags out after her Monday laundry. We saw them near Monterey CA 2 weeks ago also. Anne

  4. chris reisson 03 Feb 2013 at 12:06 pm

    If you look closely at Kim S’s photo you will see the uropygial preening oil gland at the base of the tail! There is some debate about whether the body feathers of Anhingas can absorb water or whether they merely lack hooklets and allow water to reach the skin. However, about the wing and tail feathers there is no doubt whatsoever: unless damaged or severely frayed at the edges, they ARE WATER PROOFED WITH PREENING OIL! The wings akimbo posture is much more for thermo regulation than drying. Most bird books and bird websites egregiously repeat this myth, and plagiarize each other without checking facts!

    Chris Reiss

  5. Kate St. Johnon 03 Feb 2013 at 12:09 pm

    Thanks for the information. I have changed the post to more closely match this quote from Cornell’s Birds of North America Online:
    “Unlike most aquatic birds, Anhingas have fully wettable plumage and dense bones…

    The wettable plumage of this species results in considerable loss of body heat underwater, with a concomitant need for large amounts of time spent sunning and drying feathers later. One habitat require-ment of this bird is the availability of logs and branches near the water onto which individuals can climb in order to sun. The strong dependence of this bird on sun warmth for thermoregulation limits its northern distribution.”

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