One of my favorite Texas sayings, common as cornbread, certainly applies to turkey vultures. Hopping along roadsides, guarding their carrion, or awkwardly flapping away to cluster on the branches of dead trees, they’re so common they’re rarely noted, and more rarely remarked.
Vultures tend to feed and roost in small flocks, so this pair, relaxed and sun-saturated atop an old tank, seemed unusual. I stopped the car and stepped out, browsing the landscape for more birds. The skies were empty. So were the fence posts, the windmill, the ditches, and the roof of a small, nondescript shed.
At the time, I didn’t know that turkey vultures often seek solitude during mating season. Foregoing nests, pairs separate themselves from the larger flock in order to lay their eggs in the shelter of rocky ledges, hollow trees, or even deserted buildings. I may have found a mated pair: birds who’d found a cozy, out-of-the way place to raise their family. On the other hand, since it’s hard even for experts to distinguish girl vultures from boy vultures, the birds could have been a couple of hens trading gossip, or two dudes, just hanging out.
Unwilling to disturb them, I lingered at the ditch’s edge, toying with other explanations for their behavior. Maybe they’d found a nice, big carcass, and were indulging in a post-dinner nap. We’d had a stretch of wet, gloomy days; perhaps they’d found the warmth of the metal appealing. Then, it occurred to me. Perhaps they were the lazy ones of the flock: birds who’d decided to spend Sunday afternoon just sloughing off.
All around the sloughs and ponds of the wildlife refuge, it did seem as though sloughing off was the order of the day.
In fact, they were watching a determined and quite noisy grackle harass a sleeping white ibis (Eudocimus albus). I watched, too, until the ibis woke with an expression that seemed to say, “Who let this guy into the hotel?”
Stretching one leg, then the other, the ibis unfolded with a sigh, gave the grackle a look of consummate irritation, and headed for the water. I swear I heard him saying, “Well, as long as I’m up, I might as well get a snack.”
This little pied-bill grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), was more courteous to his sleeping neighbor. Circling a coot, the grebe caused barely a ripple. Even its dives — for a fish, a crawfish, perhaps for an insect — were neat and tidy.
Eventually, the coot awoke and began to preen, and the grebe slipped quietly away.
A pied-bill grebe decked out for mating season is a delightful sight. Its thick, silver and black-banded bill is the reason for the pied in its common name. The word comes to us from Middle English, where it referred to the black and white magpie. Later, the word came to mean “decorated or colored in blotches,” as in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, “Pied Beauty”:
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
The pied-billed aren’t particularly sociable, and rarely flock. Shy and solitary, they’re quick to dive, often hide in vegetation, and sometimes respond to perceived threat by sinking down into the water until only their head remains visible. Water trapped in their feathers gives them a good bit of control over their buoyancy, so they can expose as much or as little as they please.
Like dabbling ducks, (mallards, teal, widgeon, and others) coots also “tip tail” when searching for food.
More closely related to sandhill cranes than to ducks, coots belong to a family (Rallidae) which includes rails and gallinules. Awkward in flight, they’re even more graceless during take-offs and landings, and the long, running starts necessary to get them airborne are faintly ridiculous. They do migrate, but guidebooks say they travel mostly at night: perhaps to avoid embarassment.
Among their favored foods are the stems, leaves, and seeds of sedges and grasses, and a variety of algae. They’ll often dive down to pull fresh sprouts, and sometimes find themselves tangled in dinner when they resurface. In Cajun country, where coots are known as poule d’eau, or water hens, they may find themselves on the dinner table, served up in a tasty poule d’eau gumbo.
Like coots, common gallinules (which used to be called moorhens) also dabble and dive. They’re quiet and secretive birds, but those candy-corn-like bills and facial shields tend to give them away. Even in a stand of thick reeds or other vegetation, it’s not hard to see the flashes of red, yellow, and orange that signal their presence.
While vultures snoozed and other water birds dabbled, dove, or waded their way through the afternoon, this pair of Northern shovelers (Anas clypeata) were rousing themselves for an afternoon swim.
Among the most elegant of water birds, the shape of the shoveler’s bill makes clear how it received its name.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the shoveler’s bill has about 110 fine projections called lamellae along its edges. It “forages by swimming along with its bill lowered into the water. Seeds of sedges, bulrushes, saw grass, smartweeds, pondweeds, algae and duckweeds, as well as aquatic insects, mollusks and crustaceans, are consumed by filtering the water, which is taken in at the bill tip and expelled from its base.”
Several guides, including Audubon, note that the shoveler doesn’t commonly tip its head and upper body forward into the water. According to other guides, it seldom dives, and rarely up-ends.
Seldom and doesn’t commonly are ambiguous, of course, and rarely doesn’t mean never.
Ogden Nash may have been thinking of other dabblers — particularly the mallards — when he wrote his verse, but it applies equally well to this pair of shovelers:
Behold the duck.
It does not cluck.
A cluck it lacks.
It is specially fond
Of a puddle or pond.
When it dines or sups,
It bottoms ups.
Meanwhile, back on land, grackles chattered and chirred. One, obviously out of sorts, flew over to voice a complaint.
“You think it’s all sunshine and shrimp dinners around here?” he said. “You think it’s easy, living among these preening water birds? Let me tell you — there are times this isn’t such an easy world.”
“What’s the problem?” I asked. “It can’t be food, since you don’t eat what a duck eats. Is it a territorial squabble?” “Unfortunately, not,” he said, “though I hope to find a girl to fight over. Right now, it’s getting a bath that’s the problem.”
That stopped me. “There’s as much water as land around here,” I said. “Can’t you find a suitable pool?” “I suppose I could,” he said, “but I have a favorite, and I can’t use it. Look.” He tipped his head, pointing with his beak to the bank across the road.
Following his gaze, I stared at the bank. “I think it’s time for Plan B,” I said. With just the slightest tremor of a wing and a spread of his tail, he said, “I don’t have a Plan B.” “Well,” I said, “I think you need to make one.”
(Part 1 of 2: to be continued)