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Of the over 18,000 bird species1 active during the day, most of them spend hours scouring for food from various sources. They’ll eat a broad spectrum of items ranging from seeds, insects, and sometimes even other birds. Some of the most fascinating bird species don’t look to the air or land for food. Instead, they go to the water. These birds take advantage of their lofty positions to locate prey and make the ultimate sneak attack.
Interestingly, this behavior evolved in several diverse groups. Not all these birds are aquatic animals, either. Many spend a lot of time on land, only hunting in the water when necessary. Many species have specialized body structures to increase their success, such as razor-like bills to secure prey. Let’s look a little closer at these birds to see how our feathered friends accomplish these aquatic feats.
Waterfowl includes several families of birds, including ducks, geese, and swans. Most feed on aquatic vegetation, insects, invertebrates, and other aquatic animals. Many waterfowl will also eat fish and supplement it with other foods. Some species are so successful that it’s hard for them to walk on land.
The Common Loon is probably known more for its melodious call than anything else. This bird lives in the northern United States and Canada. They differ from other avian species with their solid bones instead of the hollow ones most others have and are excellent swimmers with their paddle-like feet. Their aquatic diet also includes crayfish and the occasional leech.
The Double-Crested Cormorant lives throughout North America at various times of the year. Their habitat includes both marine and inland waters. These birds dart around underwater, snatching unsuspecting fish on the fly. You’re most likely to see them onshore with their wings outstretched. A lack of sufficient preen oil forces them to dry themselves on land.
The Lesser Scaup is a surface-diving bird that is a master at aquatic acrobats. You’ll find them in wetlands, coastal waters, and ponds. They are omnivores that will eat vegetation, crustaceans, and fish. The Lesser Scaup breeds in the northwestern corner of North America, although you may see them in inland locations during migration.
The razor-like bill and sleek body shape of the Common Merganser are the tell-tale signs that they are diving birds. That explains one of their common nicknames—Sawbill. These birds prefer wooded locations since they are cavity nesters. They are quite social and will even forage together in groups. When they spot their prey, they raise their bodies out of the water before darting down to catch it.
The small bill of the Pied-Billed Grebe may lead you to believe that they can’t catch fish. Nevertheless, this bird is an agile swimmer and diver. They don’t fly very well, so they’re more at home on the water than in the air. They can control their buoyancy, giving them an edge when on the hunt. This species lives throughout North America and in some southern areas of South America, where they are year-round residents.
The Red-Necked Grebe is a striking bird with beautiful rusty-brown plumage. These birds have a large, strong beak suitable for catching fish and defending themselves from predators. They are the quintessential waterbird and rarely go on land. Fish are no match for these agile swimmers. However, they will supplement their diet with crustaceans and amphibians when necessary.
An aerialist species describes the birds that capture their prey by plunging into the water from overhead. Keen eyesight allows them to spot unwary fish before they bounce. Watching them hunt is an exhilarating experience. Many dive from great heights that may make you cringe when they hit the surface.
The behavior of the Ring-Billed Gull is almost more entertaining than watching them hunt. They are vocal birds that often engage in play-like behavior. These birds are consummate opportunists, and their diet depends on what’s available. Like other similar species, the Ring-Billed Gull has adapted well to living with people, which means more food for them to eat.
Although their food is often location-dependent, the Herring Gull doesn’t have this name without good reason. Like the previous entry, this bird can grab anything floating near the water’s surface. They prefer coastal areas near large bodies of water and will dive for food and at predators to shoo them away. These gulls are also opportunistic and take whatever food they can find.
Terns differ from gulls with their forked tails and hovering behavior. That’s one way you can identify the Common Tern as they spot their prey before diving down for the attack. They are social birds that typically live in large colonies. As the name suggests, this species is the one people commonly see. They prefer fish as prey but will also eat crustaceans and insects in a pinch.
The Forster’s Tern is an elegant-looking bird with a streamlined body well-suited for aerial diving. Terns you see inland are most likely migrating since they are year-round residents in the Gulf of Mexico. This bird will often scan the water surface while looking for prey. When they spot something near the surface, they plunge to grab it using their lightning-fast speed.
The American White Pelican demands you notice it with its large yellow bill and black-tipped wings. This migratory bird has a graceful flight pattern that is an identifying trait. They usually scoop up fish from the surface using their oversized bills. American White Pelicans can plunge dive but prefer foraging instead. Like gulls, these birds aren’t above helping themselves to food caught by other birds.
The Brown Pelican is a darker and smaller version of the American White Pelican. These birds live on marine coasts year-round. The Brown Pelican is long-lived and the only one of its kind to rely on aerial diving as its primary hunting method. They can plunge into the water from heights as high as 60 feet. The force of the impact on their prey is enough to get the job done.
When you think of birds of prey, you probably think of hawks pouncing on unsuspecting mice or squirrels. Many birds of prey will consume whatever they can catch, whether it’s a rabbit or an unfortunate pet.
The Osprey stands alone as the only representative of their family and one with a reliance on fish. They have a unique hunting style that uses their keen eyesight to its advantage. They will hover and scan for prey above the water like terns. However, instead of plunging head-first, their barbed talons make the grab.
Passerine and perching birds include common species such as Northern Cardinals and Black-Capped Chickadees. They are typically vocal songbirds with extensive repertoires. On the other hand, non-passerine species don’t share these behaviors. Instead, they fill different niches in the environment, some of which include catching fish.
The Common Kingfisher has a comical appearance with its oversized beak. However, their beak is a formidable weapon while on the hunt. They will look for prey from a nearby perch before aerial diving into the water to catch prey. This bird will also hover above the water’s surface as it hunts.
Pelagic, or sea birds, live near oceans. These waterways provide an abundant source of food. It’s no wonder that many species take advantage of this bounty and find prey there. Stealth is a vital trait since a predator must make a quick move to get out of the water. Strong waves only add to the challenge. Most of these species don’t venture too far out, but you have to go to the seas to spot them in action.
As the name might imply, the Northern Gannet thrives near the cold Atlantic waters. These birds are cliff-nesters with bodies that are fine-tuned for aerial diving. They often hunt in groups, putting on a display of birds plunging into the frigid sea for fish. They live in colonies with elaborate communication and vocalizations that make this behavior possible.
The Great Shearwater is another species of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s an odd-looking bird with a plump body and webbed feet. They are excellent at flying and swimming and will easily soar above the crest of the ocean waves. These birds can maneuver like champions in the water as well. Some even dive from heights up to 30 feet high.
The Wilson’s Storm-Petrel is another curious-looking bird that resembles a cross between a tern and a stocky duck. They live in the cold reaches of the Atlantic Ocean, but, as a world traveler, their range can extend to Antarctica. The Wilson’s Storm-Petrel. is a hardy animal that handles the challenging conditions of its habitat well. They are aerial divers that will often consume invertebrates and plankton.
The name of the Magnificent Frigatebird fits this dinosaur-like bird of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans perfectly. Technically, they are dippers instead of divers since they don’t careen into the water from great heights. Instead, they use a method similar to the pelican with their large pouches for storing their catch. They will also take prey from other birds if given a chance.
The Common Murre looks like an oversized tern or penguin with a black head and plump body. They are more duck-like with their diving behavior and go underwater from the surface instead of from high above the water. They live near the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and are colony nesters that will share their space with other sea birds.
While the Masked Booby lives in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, you’re more likely to encounter it in Hawaii or southern parts of Florida. When they aren’t busy dive-bombing for fish, you might find them catching squid. These birds can dive from heights as high as 90 feet! Interestingly, this bird doesn’t have any known predators. After all, they live in remote areas with the oceans providing imposing barriers.
Diving for fish is a successful strategy that many birds have adopted. Diving gives these species a competitive edge when hunting, whether they enter the water from the surface or plunge into the depths below. It adds stealth and speed to the mix to improve their success. We enjoy watching these aerial displays that highlight the specialized aspects of flight, and you can learn a lot more about them just by watching this incredible behavior.
Featured Image Credit: papazachariasa, Pixabay
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Chris has been writing since 2009 on a variety of topics. Her motto with all of her writing is “science-based writing nurtured by education and critical thinking.” Chris specializes in science topics and has a special love for health and environmental topics, and animals of all shapes and sizes.
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