Posted by: atowhee | July 8, 2020

A HAIRY SITUATION: THE BEAK AND ITS MEANING

Birds fascinate us for many reasons.  One source of amazement for us land-based mammals are the many things they have that we don’t.

Feathers are superior to fur and mammal skin in many ways.

Birds’ ability to fly!  Sure, bats can fly, but they cannot soar over the Andes or Himalayas.  You will never see any bat cruising along beside an albatross, thousands of miles from land, wings occasionally hitting a wave top, flying thus for hours, navigating with skills we marvel at. No bat could withstand the pressure and friction of a falcon’s ordinary, any-day dive.  Birds regularly overtake and dispatch the other skilled flying order of life—insects.  And no flying fish can get more than a few feet above the surface.

Often overlooked is the wonder of the beak, or bill.  It is wood chisel, siphon, meat cleaver, assassin’s tool, preening comb, sensory organ extraordinaire, probe, pliers, water sieve, fish scoop, pinchers, air duct, nasal entrance, nuzzler, sexual organ, hard edged, soft throated, amazing.  Musical uses of the beak are numerous—flute, brass horn, tin whistle, drum stick, echo chamber, transmitter, imitator, castanets, clicker, mute and amplifier.

So it was a fine example of culture being transmitted when my wife and I watched adult Hairy Woodpeckers teach fledglings about how one should use the beak. The adult would hike up the dead tree trunk and chisel a bit, the youngster would follow behind, hitching itself a little awkwardly and also chiseling at the dead wood.  The adult had the full, fearsome beak, the young about half-sized still.  Behold, adult, then young.

The learner:

This was in the forest at the Green Springs Inn, east of Ashland in the southern Cascades.  Very quiet, no fireworks, our dog relieved.


Responses

  1. I was so proud of myself when I was finally able to distinguish between the Downy and Hairy woodpeckers. I have both. The red-bellied are the ones ruining the facia on my house! My favorite though are Northern Flickers.


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