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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Florida's Winter Birds

Air Date: Week of

Around 160 different species of birds live year round in Florida and around another 160 varieties arrive in the winter for nesting. But, the bird count in the Sunshine state has been hit with steep declines in recent decades. Some of their wild places have been paved over, and water-flows for the giant marshes and wetlands have been disturbed and polluted. Still, Florida is a popular spot for birding, and Kenn Kaufman, our guest ornithologist, Steve Curwood identify and discuss a few of Florida's flyers and waders.


CURWOOD: Many birds and birdwatchers alike are in Florida this time of year. Perhaps 160 different species of birds live year-round in Florida, and that many again show up in the winter for nesting. But the bird count in the Sunshine State has been hit with steep declines in recent decades. Wild places have been paved over, and water flows for the giant marshes and wetlands have been disturbed and polluted. Still, Florida is a popular spot for birding and Kenn Kaufman, our guest ornithologist, is here to talk about a few of Florida's flyers and waders. Welcome.

KAUFMAN: Thanks, Steve.

CURWOOD: Kenn, you say the wood stork is one of the most beleaguered and beloved birds of the Sunshine State. Let's listen to its call.

(Wood stork calls)

CURWOOD: Boy, that's quite a racket. I thought that was maybe an editorial meeting here at Living on Earth. But it turns out to be young wood storks? Because I didn't hear the adults make much noise.

KAUFMAN: That's right. The adults are virtually silent most of the time, but you get around a nesting colony and there's quite a bit of noise going on.

CURWOOD: It's a very impressive bird. It's what? mostly white but it's got black underfeathers on it and some sort of is it spotted on the head? Or what is it exactly on the head?

KAUFMAN: Well, they don't have any feathers on the head, so what you're seeing is the gray skin with black mottling. They were called flintheads by the locals.

CURWOOD: Now, there are not too many of these wood storks, right? I mean, it's less than what? Five or ten thousand or something?

KAUFMAN: It's thought that the total population in North America now is down to around 10,000.

CURWOOD: Wow, not many birds. I've seen a few in the cypress swamps. These giant nests in the trees, it's quite something.

KAUFMAN: They're really impressive, yeah. They'll nest in a variety of situations. They'll be in mangroves or they'll be in big cypress trees. But they're really sociable in their nesting. Like a lot of the wading breeds are.

CURWOOD: Now why is it that they're disappearing? This has something to do with the water quality changing in Florida, like in the Everglades?

KAUFMAN: It's more a matter of water levels. They do their foraging by touch. They walk around, they wade around in shallow water and just swing their heads back and forth with their bills open. And when they encounter something they snap their bills shut. And so they do their most effective hunting when the water level is dropping and the fish are more concentrated. And so, at one time there was a, just a natural cycle. But with the manipulation of the water levels with all the canals and things in Florida, it's changed that annual cycle of water levels. So some years they don't have the good hunting conditions, so they won't nest at all.

CURWOOD: Is it just fish they eat?

KAUFMAN: No, they'll eat crayfish and crabs and insects and snakes and they'll eat small turtles, they'll eat baby alligators.

CURWOOD: Alligators? Birds eating alligators?

KAUFMAN: Yeah, well, turnabout is fair play. (Curwood laughs) A baby alligator isn't that large, so it's not that much of a challenge for a huge bird like a wood stork.

CURWOOD: All right, let's listen to a couple of other birds here. Let's listen to the limpkin and the snail kite.

(Limpkin call, followed by snail kite call)

CURWOOD: Well, very different calls, very different lifestyles. But they share one very important thing, according to your book. That is their main food source. Tell us about that.

KAUFMAN: That's right. They both feed heavily on the pomacius snail, the so- called apple snail, which is really a large snail, has a lot of meat in it. But it's hard to get out, and they've both got adaptations for digging that snail out of its shell.

CURWOOD: But their hunting styles are very different, right?

KAUFMAN: Oh, completely different. The snail kite, it's a kind of hawk. It doesn't fly fast like a lot of birds of prey. It's a snail in more ways than one. It soars around slowly over the marsh and it will just, when it sees a snail, well it sort of swoops down and picks it up in one foot.

CURWOOD: Hmm. And the limpkin?

KAUFMAN: Limpkins will wade around and pick up snails either from the surface or from underwater and then carry them back to shallow water to extract them from their shells.

CURWOOD: Now, they have pretty interesting beaks, both of them, for eating these snails. Can you describe these for us please?

KAUFMAN: Well, I should describe the snail first. There's a lot of meat inside the shell of the apple snail, but it's attached to the inside of the shell with something called a columeler muscle. And then the snails get sort of a doorway called the operculum, and so when it pulls up into the shell it's hidden inside there. The snail kite, the upper mandible is long and very narrow and very curved, it's like a long hook. And it can hook it around inside that operculum and pry it open, and then use that hook to cut the muscle to get the snail out of the shell. On the limpkin, its bill actually curves slightly to the right at the tip. They're all right-handed. And the snails are also right-handed. If you have them with the opening up, they curve around to the right. So, when the limpkin jabs into that opening, its bill goes naturally around the corner to cut the muscle.

CURWOOD: Boy, they've had this relationship for a long time, huh?

KAUFMAN: Apparently so.

CURWOOD: Now, the limpkin has a long plaintive call. That's pretty easy to recognize, and kind of scary, really.

KAUFMAN: Yeah, yeah, wonderful call. It's often described as being sort of a banshee call. And then you have to back up and say, well what's that? And in Irish mythology, the banshee was a female spirit that would come wailing around the outside of the house if there was going to be a death in the family. So obviously not something that you wanted to hear. But when you're out in the swamps at night in Florida and you hear the limpkins, it can really be a blood-curdling cry.

(Limpkin cry)

CURWOOD: Ooh. I guess if you're a snail, you don't want to hear that call, either.

KAUFMAN: Definitely not.

(Limpkin cry continues)

CURWOOD: Well, Kenn, thanks for taking all this time with us today.

KAUFMAN: Well, happy to talk with you.

CURWOOD: Kenn Kaufman is author of Lives of North American Birds. And today's bird calls came from the CD Florida Bird Songs, by Jeffrey Keller. That's a production of Cornell University's Library of Natural Sounds.



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