Amazing Feats of Feet

When we look at most birds to identify them or just watch them for pleasure, most of us focus on the form or the feathers. Rarely do we even notice the feet unless it’s really something rare like a Blue-footed Booby (which we don’t have in Cedar Mill).

Bird feet are however quite fascinating due to the many types of feet there are if you take a look.  Most perching birds sleep upright in trees—have you ever wondered why it is that they don’t fall off when sleeping? I wondered that so read up on the topic in an ornithology text. Bird feet have a special tendon that clamps down like a vise onto the branch when the bird is relaxed or sleeping on the branch. When the bird “stands up” the tendon relaxes so the bird can fly off—otherwise it secures the feet to the branch—truly amazing adaptation to life in trees!

Other types of bird feet do amazing feats for their feathered owners. The feet of coots have lobes on their feet to transfer heat. These birds tend to swim in warmer waters and instead of sweating they use the increase surface area of the feet to transfer heat out of their bodies.  Most of us have seen the webbed feet of ducks and geese and the University of Oregon mascot makes use of the “webfoot” designation for many team graphics.

Other “water” birds which wade around soft edges of ponds have feet with very largely spread out toes to distribute the weight so they don’t sink. If you ever seen Great Blue Heron tracks on the sides of muddy ponds what you notice is how large the feet are for such a big bird.

Woodpeckers have an arrangement of toes to allow them to climb up and down scaly trunks—the toes are not fanned out. There are “fancy” scientific names for all these toe designs ( for example anisodactyl is the name of typical perching bird feet design).  If you take a college ornithology course you too can learn these long names.  For the more casual birder – simply noticing the variety of feet can increase your enjoyment of the many habitats that birds occupy.

Birds who get food by scratching in the dirt have longer “nails” than those who pluck nectar from flowers. Think about the long nails of chickens or some of our sparrows who scratch for insects under our bushes.

To me the feet of birds of prey (technically called raptors if they hunt in the day or owls if they hunt at night—there are some other distinguishing features of these groups but that is the major division)– are the most interesting. Hawks and owls use their feet to catch and kill their prey. They are strong, they have sharp claws and they are large. Owls have feet with feathers covering the toes. This is unusual in the bird world with most feet being covered with leathery scales but no feathers.  Owls have feathers all the way to the tips—some researchers hypothesize that this keeps them warm all year as they hunt and others believe that the feathers allow for more sensory information about their prey to be conveyed to the brain. In any event one rarely sees owls during the day and almost always the feet are under the body. That was why it was so awesome to see this particular Horned Owl in the middle of the day with the feet exposed. In all my years of birding I have never been this close to a wild Great Horned nor been able to look so long at the various aspects of this magnificent hunter.  I usually hear them calling in the spring at night. This image will become part of my gallery of special moments outside.

Go outside and see what is special to you. See what questions come up for you and what things amaze or inspire you.  You might even wonder about where your feet take you—literally—and metaphorically. So do you move toward or away from new things, from inspiring things, from certain types of things??

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