Chances are you’ve seen this peculiar bird along the waterfront of local lakes, ponds or swamps at some point. Found throughout Florida year-round, with wings outstretched drying in the sun, there will be grunting and flapping if you venture too close. Unable to fly until waterlogged feathers dry, the anhinga lacks natural waterproofing found in ducks and diving birds.
Without oil glands to render feathers impermeable to water, they must bask to dry before flying. While limiting flying ability when sodden, it provides benefits with maneuvering underwater. Dense bones and an ability to squeeze air from their feathers also help this darter adjust buoyancy while surfacing.
Sometimes referred to as a snake bird from this habit of gliding about submerged, showing just their long, snake-like neck and head above the surface, note how that long neck ends in a dagger-like, sharp yellow bill. Feeding on fish and other aquatic life, the anhinga will dive, swim and slip about freshwater lakes, swamps and ditches. The bill is used to harpoon prey and backward slanted serrations ensure easy capture of slippery fish.
When fish swim near, they are impaled in an instant, facilitated by a specialized hinge mechanism between the eighth and ninth neck vertebrae of the anhinga. Once shaken loose of the saw-like bill edge, the prey is tossed upwards and swallowed whole, headfirst, in what seems a a mere moment.
Once fed, the anhinga clumsily makes it way to a perch and begins to dry out. Croaking and flapping if approached too closely, it is worth mentioning the same dart and stab mechanism is used to attack the eyes of predators or too close for comfort approaches by humans. Unable to fly off, they can also drop back into water to escape, if available.
Males boast glossy black feathers that glow with a greenish hue along the silvery white wing patches and streaks of their shoulders and wings. Females and juveniles are easily identified by a buffy tan breast and neck over a dark belly. Large, webbed feet act as great flippers to propel the bird while swimming but are clumsy on land or while climbing. Platform stick nests are placed in trees overhanging water, offering a ready escape for young who can swim long before they can fly.
You may also hear someone call this a water turkey from the way the bird will fan out its tail feathers, much like a gobbler. Interestingly, the name anhinga is said to come from the Brazilian Tupi language and translates as “devil bird.” It’s not certain why these mostly silent, dark birds might be referred to in this manner, but perhaps it is for their ability to appear and disappear while swimming.
With a nearly four-foot wingspan, the anhinga is a strong flyer. Flight upwards will be in a spiral fashion to reach the thermals so they can soar far overhead. Identify them above by the long, outstretched neck and tail, making the bird resemble the shape of a cross while in flight.