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Anhingas Stick It to Fish

Dear Bird Folks,

On a recent trip to Florida I saw a cormorant that had a fish stuck on its beak. The fish was speared clean through the middle and the bird couldn’t seem to get it off no matter what it did. Please tell me that the bird knew what it was doing and the story had a happy ending.

-Walt, Boise, Idaho


No happy ending Walt,

I hate to spoil your day, but whether that bird was able to get that fish off of its beak or not, the ending is not going to be happy. It won’t be happy because the fish that had been speared will not be going back to school, ever. I understand your concern for the cormorant, but right now your story has made ichthyologists everywhere sob inconsolably. They are very sensitive about their fish.

Aside from the fish tragedy, I have good news for you. The bird you saw will be fine. Also, you may want to know that the bird you saw wasn’t even a cormorant. It was the very similar looking Anhinga. How do I know it wasn’t a cormorant, you ask? If you take a close look at a cormorant’s bill (be careful, they have nasty breath), you will notice that their bill is rounded and blunt at the end. The only fish they could spear would be a jellyfish or a Filet-O-Fish. Cormorants aren’t fish stabbers. They chase fish underwater and snap them up with their beak, much the same way a dog snaps a Frisbee out of the air, only without the drool. An Anhinga (pronounced “anhinga”) on the other hand has a very sharp, pointy beak. It doesn’t bother snapping up the fish, it runs them through with its spearlike bill. Their beaks have backward grooves on them to prevent the unlucky fish from prematurely slipping off. When it spears a fish, the bird must surface and figure out a way to get the fish off . Usually it simply flips its head back, the fish goes flying up and then down the hatch. That’s the theory anyway. Sometimes the fish is jammed on there pretty good and the bird has to struggle to get it off. That’s probably what you saw, Walt. The bird felt all big and bad because it had caught a yummy fish, only to have the situation turn awkward when it couldn’t flip the fish off its bill as the plan had called for.

I wouldn’t worry too much about it. I’m sure your bird worked it out eventually. What’s interesting about Anhingas is, if they spear a fish that’s too big to eat, they just drop it and leave it there. They don’t try to stuff it in. Can you imagine a gull doing that? I’ve seen a gull with the tail of an eel sticking out of its mouth because it couldn’t get the eel all the way down, but it was not about to give it up either.

Anhingas are one of few water birds that don’t have an oil gland to waterproof their feathers. When a duck dives underwater, it comes up totally dry. When an Anhinga dives, it comes up soaked to the skin. Because of that, they must live where the water is warm or they don’t live very long. I’m pretty sure that would leave Boise out of the picture for good year-round Anhinga habitat. Except for getting cold easily, being soaked is an advantage for the Anhinga. Most diving birds have to spend energy to stay below the surface. They must constantly fight their natural buoyancy which wants to pop them back to the surface. The waterlogged Anhinga doesn’t have such trouble. It can swim about, just below the surface, with no trouble at all. Eventually, just like people, the water starts to make the birds chilled and they must come out of the water to dry off and warm up. Anhingas can be seen sitting in trees or on stumps, with their wings spread, as they hang themselves out to dry.

In many areas Anhingas are called “snake birds” because they often swim with only the tops of their heads above the surface. Combine that with the bird’s long skinny neck and you have yourself a pretty good water snake impersonation. I know the snake story has nothing to do with your question. I just tossed that one in for free.

Anhingas and cormorants are similar looking birds, Walt. Don’t feel bad about getting them mixed up. And don’t worry about them either. Anhingas are more than capable of getting fish off of their bills. Just don’t expect to see one living in Idaho. The weather is too cold and they don’t like your potatoes. Actually, they like your potatoes just fine; they just worry about all of those carbs.