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Bizarre Birds

By Ellen Lambeth


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Huh? Did a beach umbrella get blown in to the water (above)? Nope, that’s a bird—but one that happens to be way beyond average! The Darth Vader look-alike (top right) is a black heron of Africa. And the heron’s cloaked pose is a fishing trick: Those wrap-around wings shade the water from the bright sun. That might help the bird see its underwater prey. Even better, it might attract prey looking for a cool spot.

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Sandgrouse live in dry areas. And they eat dry food: hard little seeds. Since the birds can’t get enough water from that, they have to search every day for a pond, puddle, or pool to drink from.

This male Burchell’s sandgrouse (top left) lives in southern Africa. He might look as if he’s taking a bath. But he’s really sopping up droplets with special water-holding feathers on his belly. Why? To carry the precious liquid back to his chicks. They also eat dry seeds but aren’t yet able to fly to the water holes. Good thing Dad can hold plenty of H2O in his built-in water bottle!

The blue-capped ifrita (ee-FREE-tuh) (above left) of New Guinea is one of several birds that have poison in their skin and feathers. Scientists aren’t sure why. The yucky taste might help keep insect pests away. It might also make a predator give up an attack.

Some birds eat bugs, and some eat seeds. But only South America’s hoatzin (ho-WAHT-sin) (middle photo) eats green leaves and little else. As you can see, it even feeds mashed-up leaves to its chicks! Since leaves are hard to digest, hoatzins use most of their energy to process their meals. They hardly ever fly.

The male Australian malleefowl (above right) builds a mega mound of dirt, leaves, and twigs. The female lays her eggs in it, and then he covers them up. The eggs mustn’t get too hot or cold, so Dad sticks his bill in the mound each day to check the temperature. To make the nest cooler or warmer, he scratches stuff away—or piles it back on—with his powerful feet.

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As their name suggests, weaver birds make amazing nests by weaving together grasses and other plant bits. And sociable weavers of southern Africa (see photo in circle) take this responsibility extremely seriously! These birds team up to build a huge apartment complex of nests like this one (above left). The whole thing might weigh more than a ton and have hundreds of weavers in there all at once! It’s so cozy and inviting that other kinds of birds sometimes move in, too.

“Hey, do these stripes make me look fat?” That’s what the kori bustard (middle photo) of the African plains might be saying, as it shows off its flashy tail feathers. Of course, the bustard isn’t really fat. But it is heavy: about 40 pounds (as much as an average 5-year-old kid weighs), which is more than just about any other bird that can fly.

What can work the way snowshoes do to spread weight and keep a body from sinking? The ultra-long toes and claws of a northern jacana (juh-KAH-nuh) (top right). They allow this bird to make its way across floating leaves such as lily pads. That’s where this bird of Mexico and Central America often finds its food: mostly insects.

Hummingbirds have long bills that can reach nectar deep inside blossoms. But the bill of the South American sword-billed hummingbird (bottom right photo) beats them all. It’s longer than the bird itself! That lets the swordbill get nectar that no other bird can reach. But it also makes it tricky for the bird to clean its feathers and keep its balance.

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