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Surprising facts about some Southwestern Ontario birds

Although an American Woodcock has much in common with upland game birds such as grouse and pheasants, it is actually a sandpiper in the Scolopacidae family. Photo by Paul Nicholson.

Because of bird science and our own experience in watching birds, we know much about the species that we watch. There are however some surprising aspects about them.

While many birders consider Ontario’s Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures to be raptors, they aren’t true raptors since they don’t kill prey with their talons. The word raptor is from the Latin rapere which means to seize. Vultures do however tear flesh from carrion with their curved beaks.

Since the American Woodcock is never expected to be seen on a beach or on mud flats, it surprises some to learn that, scientifically speaking, it is a species of sandpiper in the Scolopacidae family. This bird prefers brushy habitat or forest floors. To further confuse things, the Woodcock is sometimes informally lumped in with the upland game birds of the Phasianidae family that includes pheasant, grouse, partridge, and Wild Turkey.

Many bird enthusiasts have learned that female Brown-headed Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests each spring and then leave the tasks of incubation and raising young to the host birds. Cowbirds do not build nests, so they are known as obligate brood parasites. Brood parasitism is an adaptation that some birders finds abhorrent and others find ingenious. Fewer birders know that Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks may also lay eggs in another bird’s nest, but they stay with the same species. Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos are facultative brood parasites, meaning that the female may lay eggs in her own nest, the nest of another cuckoo, or very occasionally in the nest of a different bird such as an American Robin.

Wood Ducks have another unusual behaviour. Wood Ducks prefer to nest in a tree cavity that is many metres above the ground and most often adjacent to some water. Just one day after the ducklings hatch, they leap from the nest into the great wide world and start to swim with their mother. There are a number of short movies that document this dramatic start to a Wood Duck’s life

It surprises some to learn that not all of our owls are strictly nocturnal. Unlike Ontario’s other owls, the Snowy Owl is frequently active during the day. This makes some sense when you consider that through the summer when the bird is on its Artic breeding grounds, there is light in the sky all day. Through the winter, we might see Snowy Owls in Southern Ontario hunting during daylight hours.

The authoritative website kicks-off its description of the Pied-billed Grebe with this curious sentence: “Part bird, part submarine, the Pied-billed Grebe is common across much of America.” Bird watchers who have carefully observed Pied-billed Grebes will have seen the bird sink straight down into the water rather than dive head-first like most other waterfowl. There are video clips of this behaviour on YouTube. These birds can also dive head-first. An interesting defensive adaptation of the Pied-billed Grebe is that it can also stay submerged with only part of its head above the water’s surface.

Leucism is another surprising aspect of bird watching. Leucistic or partially-leucistic birds have white or partly white plumage. This is similar to albinism and is caused by an abnormality in the deposition of pigment in a bird’s feathers.

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