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Other Birds

Other Birds

Alaska's Magpies (mp3)

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Alaska's Tiniest Bird (mp3)

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Altricial (mp3)

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Bare Feet, Feathered Feet! (mp3, Transcript)

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Bare feet, feathered feet

Alaskan owls, such as screech owls, great horned owls and snowy owls, have feathered legs. In fact, snowy owls and great horned owls have feathers on their feet and toes, right down to their talons. That would be like having thick fur on your hands, right down to your fingernails. Because they live and hunt in very cold weather, they need a little more coverage and insulation. Feathers also offer some protection from prey animals that might bite when caught.

Ptarmigan have feathers on their feet that act as snowshoes, distributing their weight so they can walk more easily on the winter snows. Other birds in Alaska have feathered legs and feet, but not bald eagles. Bald eagles have bare legs, and you can easily see their bright yellow, scaly legs, called tarsals. Bare legs are better suited to this than feathered legs. Not only would their feathers get wet and soggy when they're hunting, the slime and fish scales would stick to the fluffy feathers. Unfeathered feet are easier to clean. Bald eagles don't have feathered legs, but they have something extra - rough scales on the soles of their feet -just like ospreys- which help them better grip fish.

Golden eagles do have feathered legs, and that's a sure giveaway if you're comparing an immature bald eagle to a golden eagle.

There is a group of owls known as fish owls - Asian owls that are adapted to catching fish. And just like fish-eating eagles, these owls have bare legs for a fish-eating lifestyle, and bare feet with the same adaptations for catching and holding fish.

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Big Birds (mp3)

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Bird Talk (mp3, Transcript)

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Bird talk

A few years ago my friends Scott and Amber visited me in Juneau. These avid birders live in Northern California, but they managed to identify every bird we encountered by sound alone. With the faint call of a kinglet or the song of a flycatcher, they had the species identified and were peering up at the crown of a hemlock tree, or deep into the willow underbrush.

The trick, they said, is phrases. Bird books tell you that a barred owl says, "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all."

An olive-sided flycatcher says, "Quick, three beers,"

and a Yellow throat says, "Wichity Wichity Wichity."

The familiar American robin is known for its "cheer-up, cheerio" song.

These phrases are good reminders, but for bird calls you are trying to learn, it's best to make up your own phrases to help you identify the call. Describe the sound to yourself in words. The marbled murrelet says "Keer, keer."

Association also works as well. I've always thought of the varied thrush as the gym teacher bird, because its call has the two-tone sound of a gym teacher's whistle.

The hummingbird is named for its sound, although it's ...ot a song...but some birds are named for their songs. The call of the saw-whet owl, a small forest owl, sounds like a saw being sharpened or whetted by a file.

The familiar chickadee is named .....or its ca.....l........and so is the cuckoo.

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Bird's Special Eyelids (mp3)

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Birds Cache (mp3, Transcript)

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Bird's Cache

On a summer day a raven landed in the vacant lot across the street from my house. He looked around, then hopped over to a fallen log. He rooted around underneath it with his beak for a few seconds, then pulled out a big piece of bread and flew off. Over the following weeks, I watched ravens hide food and retrieve cached food from several hiding places in this same area. In some cases I saw food retrieved - or perhaps stolen by another raven - just a few minutes after it had been hidden. The birds were always secretive. Sometimes a raven would hop around and pretend to hide the food in four or five different places, then hide it for real, then pretend to hide it in a few more places before flying off.

Jays - another corvid and cousin to the raven - are well known to hide food. My neighbor feeds Steller jays peanuts, and many times I've pulled peanuts out of my flower pots and dug them out of my garden beds where the jays have stashed them.

Corvids are good at hiding food, but many other birds do this as well. Nutcrackers, nuthatches and chickadees store seeds. And studies have shown that birds show a remarkable ability to remember a large number of caches.

Kestrels and shrikes will store mice and insects by sticking them on thorns or barbs of barb-wire fences.

Acorn woodpeckers wedge acorns into crevices they chisel into the bark of trees. The red-headed woodpecker stores food in caches, like a larder, to save for winter use, and will defend these caches against other birds and squirrels.

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Birds Smell (mp3, Transcript)

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Birds smell

When I was a little kid, a pair of robins built a nest in my backyard. I remember my mom lifted me up to look at the blue eggs, and she warned me not to touch them, because the mother bird would abandon her nest if she smelled the human scent. That's an oft-repeated admonition, but since then, I've learned that most birds have no sense of smell.

With the exception of some birds such as starlings or turkey vultures that are able to hone in on certain scents linked to their food sources, most birds have a very limited sense of smell. This is essentially a myth and one that likely started to discourage people from disturbing wildlife. Bird biologists who do nest surveys report that birds that have been flushed from a nest by humans or other predators do sometimes abandon their eggs or young. The real issue is disturbance, not smell.

The myth about human scent causing abandonment is also untrue for most other animals, including mammals. Baby animals that have been handled by biologists are usually reunited with their mothers, who do not appear bothered by the biologists' scent on their young. Again, disturbance is the real problem. When handling baby animals, biologists must work quickly and carefully to minimize disturbance.

The best rule of thumb if you find a baby bird or any animal infant is just to leave it alone. In most cases, the parents are nearby and may be waiting for you to leave the area. Touching animals can possibly pass diseases from wildlife to humans, or vice versa. However, if you do inadvertently happen to touch a bird's egg or nest, rest assured that your scent alone won't cause the parents to flee. Just leave the area as quickly and quietly as you can, and do what you can to minimize your disturbance.

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Birdsongs and the Syrinx (mp3, Transcript)

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Birdsongs and the syrinx

We think of birdcalls as whistling, and when we whistle, the sound is made in our mouths. But birds don't whistle, they sing, and the sound is produced deep in the bird's body in an organ only birds possess, the syrinx.

The syrinx puts our voice box - or larynx - to shame. Both the syrinx and the larynx contain elastic membranes, we call them vocal cords, controlled by muscles. But the syrinx is a far more efficient sound-producer. When we speak, we only use about ten percent of the air passing our vocal cords. The syrinx uses almost a hundred percent of the air passing through it, so even a small songbird can make a big sound.

Our larynx sits at the top of the trachea, in our throats. The trachea forks at the bottom like an upside-down Y, with a branch going to each lung. That fork is where the bird's syrinx is located. The syrinx has two sets of membranes and muscles, and the two sides are independently controlled, allowing for complex vocalizations. This is almost like having two voice boxes in one throat, and enables birds like the varied thrush to sing two different notes at the same time.

Turkey vultures and ostriches have no syringeal muscles and can only hiss. But versatile vocalists like songbirds have as many as nine pairs of syringeal muscles, which enables a small bird like the winter wren to sing complex songs, packing hundreds of notes into just a few seconds.

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Broken Wing Trick (mp3)

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Crane Migration (mp3, Transcript)

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Crane migration

It's September in Interior Alaska and hundreds of lesser sandhill cranes are feeding at Creamers Field in Fairbanks. The cranes stand almost three feet tall and boast a six-foot wingspan. Geese are mixed in with the cranes, and all the birds are fueling up for their big fall migration south.

The cranes at Creamer's Field are part of the Mid-Continent Population of Sandhill cranes, a group defined by their summer nesting areas in the Arctic and their winter feeding areas in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and northern Mexico. There are about half a million lesser sandhill cranes nest in the Mid-Continent Population, nesting from north-central Canada, across Alaska, and into Eastern Siberia. The major nesting areas in Alaska for these cranes are the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the Tanana Valley and Yukon Flats.

In mid-September, about 200,000 Mid-continent cranes pass through the Tanana Valley near Delta Junction, with as many as 50,000 passing through per day during the peak. At least 50,000 cranes nesting in northeast Siberia cross the Bering Strait and travel this route as well. These cranes follow an inland route north of the Alaska Range through the Tanana Valley into the Yukon. They head east of the continental divide and then south through the Great Plains to their wintering areas in the Southwest. A study of marked cranes on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta confirmed their migration through the mid-continent region.

When taking off, flocks of cranes ascend in great circling columns, riding thermal currents of rising air, then form into "V"-formations. They fly very high and are generally daylight and fair-weather migrants, covering as many as 350 miles a day.

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Dippers (mp3, Transcript)

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Dippers

On a sunny summer day a dipper's song carries above the rush of stream water. Dippers are territorial and sing to advertise their claim to a stretch of creek. Both the male and the female sing, and will drive away any intruding dippers. It's likely that this dipper and its mate have a nest nearby. Dipper nests are hollow; basketball-size bundles of moss and woven grass, tucked into root wads or rocks beside the stream bank or under small waterfalls.

Dippers are well-named; they dip and bob as they perch on streamside rocks.

These wren-like aquatic songbirds are well adapted to stream life. They feed underwater on snails, insects and small fish, walking along the bottom of the stream or swimming with their wings. They can fly through the water and burst from the surface to fly straightaway over the water. They have a transparent inner eyelid they close to protect their eyes from spray and water. Like all songbirds they have a preen gland that produces oil they use to groom and protect their feathers - but the preen gland on a dipper is ten times larger than other songbirds and a well-preened dipper is waterproof, with a downy layer of under feathers keeping the bird warm in icy Alaska streams.

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Eggs (mp3, Transcript)

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Eggs

On a summer day on Round Island, a colony of murres is busy tending their eggs. Murres are seabirds related to puffins, and they spend most of their lives on the water. When it's mating season, they group up in large colonies, pair up, and lay eggs. The colonies are on cliffs, ideally cliffs inaccessible to land predators like foxes. Murres don't build nests, but lay their eggs on rock ledges. The eggs are not shaped like familiar chicken eggs; they're long and pointed at one end. The shape prevents them from rolling off the edge of the ledge. A rolled murre egg circles around on its pointed end.

Bird eggs come in a variety of shapes. Hummingbirds' eggs are elliptical, tiny symmetrical ovals just a half-inch long. Owl eggs are much rounder than most birds' eggs.

Some birds, like murres, lay just a single egg, while other birds like grouse and ptarmigan can lay more than a dozen eggs when they nest. The reason a chicken can lay an egg a day for months at a time is because they are what's called "indeterminate layers." They're trying to accumulate a clutch of eggs in the nest, ideally about a dozen to fifteen. If the eggs are taken every day, they just keep on laying. Other birds are "determinate layers," and will lay only a certain number of eggs no matter what. If an egg is broken, or taken, it's not replaced.

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Fairbanks Birds (mp3)

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Habituation (mp3)

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Hazing (mp3)

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Hot Ravens (mp3, Transcript)

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Panting ravens

On a hot summer day I watched a group of ravens sunbathing. They had gathered on a lawn next to a white shed, a bright and hot spot sheltered from the wind where the sun's rays were amplified. Some of the big black birds had their wings half-spread, like a droopy cape, and all had their mouths open. They looked like dogs panting, although they did not have their tongues hanging out. It was an odd picture - they seemed uncomfortably warm, but they had clearly sought out this hot spot.

Birds don't sweat. Their primary means of cooling is through their lungs. Fresh air coursing thru their respiratory system picks up internal body heat and warm moist air is exhaled. Those ravens I saw really were panting - increasing the flow of air over the moist surfaces of the mouth and bronchial areas. Ravens also thermoregulate by spreading their wings to dissipate heat, as I saw; and by flying to cooler air layers and soaring in the cool air.

Ravens' normal body temperature is about 103 degrees, a bit higher than humans' 98.6. Our temperature doesn't fluctuate much under normal conditions, but birds' temperature normally fluctuates a few degrees depending on outside temperature, metabolic activity such as digestion and activity - a flying bird produces about nine times more heat than a resting bird.

Why the ravens I saw were deliberately basking in the hot sun is a mystery, but people do the same thing.

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Hummers of Summer (mp3, Transcript)

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Hummers of Summer

On a beautiful late spring day, rufous hummingbirds swarm a large feeder. These hummingbirds spent the winter in the American south and migrate to Alaska for the spring and summer. Some travel as much as 8,000 miles in a yearly round-trip migration. A one-year-old female rufous hummingbird was banded in Florida in January of 2010, and was recaptured six months later in Prince William Sound - 3,530 miles away. But given the likely migration route - west from Florida to southern California, then north up the Pacific coast - the distance flown was likely closer to 4,300 miles.

Hummingbirds have excellent memories and remember the locations of feeders like this - or any reliable nectar source, like a salmonberry patch - year after year. They're also aggressively competitive, and fight and defend food sources.

Hummingbirds are the smallest birds in the world, and the smallest warm-blooded animals on Earth. The smallest is the bee hummingbird found in Cuba - it's just two inches long and weighs less than a dime.

Hummingbirds have the fastest heartbeat and the fastest metabolism of any vertebrate. They can hover or move in any direction with precision, even in strong wind. The remarkable flying ability and metabolism is fueled mostly by flower nectar, but rufous hummingbirds also eat spiders and insects.

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Hummingbirds (mp3, Transcript)

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Amazing hummingbirds

On a beautiful late spring day, rufous hummingbirds swarm a large feeder. These hummingbirds spent the winter in the American South and migrate to Alaska for the spring and summer. Some travel as much as 8,000 miles in a yearly round-trip migration. A one-year-old female rufous hummingbird was banded in Florida in January of 2010, and was recaptured six months later in Prince William Sound - 3,530 miles away. But given the likely migration route - west from Florida to southern California, then north up the Pacific coast - the distance flown was likely closer to 4,300 miles.

Hummingbirds have excellent memories and remember the locations of feeders like this - or any reliable nectar source, like a salmonberry patch - year after year. They're also aggressively competitive, and fight and defend food sources.

Hummingbirds are the smallest birds in the world, and the smallest warm-blooded animals on Earth. The smallest is the bee hummingbird found in Cuba - it's just two inches long and weighs less than a dime.

Hummingbirds have the fastest heartbeat and the fastest metabolism of any vertebrate. They can hover or move in any direction with precision, even in strong wind. The remarkable flying ability and metabolism is fueled mostly by flower nectar, but rufous hummingbirds also eat spiders and insects.

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Mobbing (mp3, Transcript)

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Mobbing

On a chilly winter day a flock of crows has discovered an owl in a tree. Like an angry mob, the crows surround the owl, haranguing it with raucous cries. This behavior is called mobbing. It's a kind of social attack that is common in many different kinds of birds. Generally, it's small birds that attack larger, predatory birds, but birds will also mob terrestrial predators, like housecats, and sometimes even humans.

Some birds are much more likely to mob a predator during nesting season than at other times of the year. But crows like these will almost always mob an owl on sight. Mobbing is generally just persistent harassment. But sometimes smaller birds will physically attack an interloping predator and may even successfully kill it.

Mobbing is most often seen when birds are in flight. A passing eagle or hawk will be intercepted by a single bird that repeatedly dives at it, harassing it as it flies. A flock of birds may also intercept a passing predator. An eagle scoping out a flock of gulls on a beach may find the tables turned when instead of fleeing, the gulls engage it and drive it away.

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Nests (mp3, Transcript)

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Bird nests

In a tall, broken-topped spruce tree just 200 years from my house, a pair of bald eagles is adding to their nest. Nests aren't homes for birds, they're nurseries. Birds build nests for babies.

Eagles will reuse a nest year after year, adding material each spring. Over time, eagle nests came become huge platforms, meters across and weighing more than a thousand pounds. Eagles build the largest nests in the bird world. One of my neighbors told me he and his brother once climbed that spruce tree in the fall, after the nesting season, and laid down in the nest. It was more than big enough to hold two grown men.

Other birds, like woodpeckers, build a new nest each spring. Woodpeckers are cavity nesters, and well-equipped to make cavities, so that means they peck and chip a new cavity every year. That's really important for other cavity nesters, like owls, chickadees, wrens and flycatchers, that aren't built for drilling into trees. They need woodpeckers to do their nest building for them. They are also quite receptive to using nest boxes supplied by people.

Pine siskins are little finches, songbirds, but like eagles, they are early nesters, pairing up in late March in Southeast Alaska and building the familiar cup nests, little bowls of woven grass and twigs tucked into shrubbery and anchored to tree branches. I found a deer hide someone dumped at a roadside pullout this spring, and it was a siskin magnet. The birds repeatedly gathered beaksfull of hair and fur to line their nests, making a soft, warm bed for the eggs and chicks soon to come.

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Nonvocal Bird Songs (mp3, Transcript)

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Nonvocal bird songs

Nothing says it's spring quite like bird songs - robins, varied thrush and even sparrows. But not all bird songs are sung. Some birds, such as woodpeckers, call to prospective mates by drumming, hammering their beaks on a resonant surface. These woodpeckers aren't just drilling into a tree for food, and often they chose particularly resonant surfaces such as drainspouts, mailboxes and metal signs to announce their presence. Woodpeckers do have voices and make calls, but drumming is a form of communication.

Nighthawks also have a call that's non-vocal, a sound that's generated by their wings. They have a characteristic call, but the males also make a distinct, loud sound with their feathers. A nighthawk will make a fast, steep dive, and pull out just a few feet from the ground. At the bottom of the dive, air rushes through the bird's wings, vibrating the primary wing feathers.

Some of the seaducks also have noisy wings, but the whistling sound made when goldeneyes and scoters fly isn't a deliberate call.

The common snipe is another bird that uses its feathers to make sound, called winnowing. In a behavior similar to the night hawk, the snipe will dive - but instead of the wing feathers vibrating, the snipe spreads its tail feathers - creating a distinct sound.

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Redwing Blackbirds (mp3)

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Resonating Cranes (mp3)

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Rock Doves (mp3, Transcript)

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Rock doves

At a Juneau restaurant with outdoor seating, a trio of pigeons is underfoot, gleaning crumbs and scraps. Relatively fearless, they dodge efforts to shoo them off, scampering under tables and benches and flying only when necessary - and then only a short distance, returning in minutes. The restaurant will close in a few weeks at the end of the tourist season, and these birds will find another place to feed, almost certainly continuing their close association with people and human-provided food.

Pigeons - officially known as rock doves - have long been closely associated with people. Rock doves are believed to be the first domesticated birds and are referenced in Egyptian and Mesopotamian writings more than 5,000 years old. At first they were raised for food, and later for their remarkable homing trait and ability to carry messages. Birds that escaped and became feral maintained their close association with people. As people spread across the globe, rock doves traveled with them. They were introduced to North America in the early 1600s by French immigrants to Nova Scotia.

Rock doves aren't migratory and tend to stay close to their favorite feeding sites. Wild rock doves nest on cliffs; in the urban landscape, bridges, rafters and the ledges of buildings serve as nesting and roosting sites. They mate for life and both parents incubate the eggs, guard the nest and care for the young. A female lays two eggs in a clutch and can raise the two babies, known as squabs, in just two months, feeding them on pigeon milk, a rich, high fat food they regurgitate to feed their nestlings. Under ideal conditions with abundant food they can produce six clutches a year, which explains their abundance.

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Sap Eaters (mp3, Transcript)

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Sapsuckers

The distinct call of a woodpecker carries through the forest. It's not drilling or pecking, it's calling to its mate. These woodpeckers have a nestful of babies in a cavity in a nearby tree, and the hungry babies are keeping both parents busy. These are sapsuckers, woodpeckers that don't just drill into trees for bugs. Like people tapping trees for sap to make birch or maple syrup, sapsuckers create elaborate networks of sap wells and maintain them to ensure sap production. The sap wells are rows of pencil-eraser-size holes pecked through the bark of trees, and the birds lick the sap that oozes out. They also eat insects that get caught in the sap.

Sapsuckers defend their wells from other sapsuckers, as well as from other birds. Rufous Hummingbirds are known to nest near sap wells, follow sapsuckers in their daily movements, and may even time their migration to coincide with sapsucker migrations so they can feed off the sap wells.

Like other woodpeckers, sapsuckers excavate a new nest cavity each year, and their "leftover" nest cavities are important to other cavity-nesting birds that aren't equipped to build them. Many species of flycatchers, swallows, falcons, and owls nest in cavities, as do ducks like mergansers, goldeneyes and wood ducks - which is why they like nest boxes. Even some mammals like northern flying squirrels nest in woodpecker-made cavities.

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The Fisher King (mp3, Transcript)

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The Fisher King

With a blur of blue, grey and white, a belted kingfisher streaks across a boat harbor to intercept another kingfisher intruding on its territory. It's the breeding season, and this bird is defending two territories, its favorite hunting area in the harbor, and its nest site almost a mile away.

The kingfisher is a familiar bird found near water across North America. Perched on a branch or dock piling, the kingfisher resembles a Stellers jay, with a crested head and large bill - but kingfishers aren't related to Jays. There are 84 species of kingfisher worldwide - most live in Asia - and only three in North America. The belted kingfisher is by far the most common and widespread. It's named for the blue band across its white chest. The female can be easily distinguished from the male - she has a second, reddish brown belt below the blue one.

The bird swoops from her perch - she's spotted a salmon fry just below the surface of the harbor. Hovering above the fish, she takes aim, then plunges into the water, disappearing completely below the surface. She bursts from the water with a wriggling three-inch long fish in her beak. She returns to her perch and swings the fish hard by its tail, smacking it against the piling a few times to kill it. Then she takes off for her nest to feed her waiting babies.

The kingfisher nests in a burrow it excavates in a sand or gravel embankment, digging a tunnel three to seven feet deep with a nest chamber in the back.

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Winnowing Snipe (mp3)

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