Quoddy Nature Notes ~ Legs and Feet of Birds


Legs and feet of birds

SharpShinned Hawk

Picture is probably a one legged Sharpshinned hawk. I watched him fly and land, but he still might have had the other leg up in his feathers for some unknown reasons.

Last Wednesday (from this writing), as I was walking out to drop my apple core parts on the stump under the bird feeder, I noticed an ominous sign that wasn’t there earlier in the morning.  A little pile of Mourning dove feathers indicated a Bebop had bought the farm.  I tried to reconstruct the happening in my mind of who dunnit.  I was pretty sure I knew the motive, but it was a challenge to settle on the perp.  The feathers were in a pretty neat pile, so not much of a struggle, so probably not a Sharpshinned hawk.  An owl?  It was almost noon.  It could have been a Barred owl; they’re more apt to hunt in the daytime than a Great- horned.  A Goshawk?  That could have done the deed also.  What ever attacked the mourning dove grabbed it with a set of talons that completely immobilized the dove and probably landed there and put the finishing touches on the assassination then flew off with his prize to dine in private.  The whole deed probably took less than 10 seconds.  Why didn’t the fly off disturb the pile of feathers?  If the raptor didn’t land, why were there any feathers at all?

It’s interesting to contemplate the legs and feet of the victim and the victor.  Had the legs of the Mourning dove been compromised by the recent cold snap?  Most doves migrate, but some that stay suffer frostbite to their feet, and a clumsy or delayed takeoff might have been the edge that the predator needed to succeed.  The predator also needs his weaponry to be in tip top shape, as a raptor that loses a leg or foot is at a decided disadvantage.   A hawk or owl that grabs a squirrel, rat or weasel does so at his peril, as these animals, if not grabbed correctly and subdued quickly, can retaliate and are capable of severe damage to their attacker.  I have seen raptors with only one leg, but not very many.

The legs and feet of all birds are a mind boggling assortment of evolutionary talents, to assist the bird in its survival.  Some of the capabilities and uses are obvious.  Notice the blue jays and chickadees as they hold the sunflower seed with their feet and whack at it to open it up.  Notice the nuthatches can come down the tree headfirst, but the woodpeckers can’t.  The shorebirds and wading birds have longer legs to serve their purposes, but they often rest standing on one leg, and why they do this is somewhat of a mystery.  The biggest reason seems to be body heat retention.  The legs of birds are largely uninsulated, so there is a thermal advantage to tuck one leg in the feathers.  But even birds in tropical climates, like flamingoes, are famous for standing on one leg.  Apparently they do this more often when the ambient temperature is lower.  Studies have indicated that some birds are built so that a one legged stance is a little bit more stable, and some native people, like some tribes in Africa, also rest standing on one leg.  However, this seems to be just a custom with no obvious advantage, and they generally have another attachment to the ground with stick or a bow or spear.  Whatever, I’m very jealous.  More research indicated that the running birds, like ostriches, don’t stand on one leg.  I guess I’m more closely related to an ostrich than a flamingo.