Thursday, October 2, 2014

On Our Feet


White-breasted nuthatch
If you're going to understand how I'm able to walk up and down tree trunks, I want to give you my perspective on growing up a bird.

Your scientifically-minded community has a pretty good grasp on how things happen. They've organized me and most of my friends into an ornithological order called Passeriformes, which is based on the way we perch.
Take a good look at brother titmouse: three toes forward and one toe backward, all joined to our legs at the same point. That defines passerine. Our grip closes automatically when we land on a branch, and stays that way even while we're sleeping.

Tufted titmouse
But it's not just about sitting. We can cling to almost any surface, like this phoebe on the quarry wall.

Phoebe on quarry wall
It's only partly about geometry. Our toes extend into sharp claws. We need them at precarious moments.

Downy woodpecker at upside-down business
Some of my arboreal friends spend so much time in awkward positions that they've re-arranged their toes to make life easier.

Not a passerine
 In doing so the woodpeckers have earned their own order Piciformes among the science-minded: two toes forward, two rearward. That's clever on everybody's part.

Great blue heron
I was noticing the other day that the tall fellow by the quarry pond has three toes forward like me, but he's a wader not a percher. Overall his feet are nothing like mine. I could never walk on oozy ground without sinking. The scientists knew their stuff putting him in a separate order, the Ciconiiformes, which in their Latin language means 'stork-like.'

Double-crested cormorant
There's a place by the quarry where seabirds sometimes stand out of the water, which gives me a chance to satisfy my curiosity about their propeller feet. Absolutely not handy for perching, but powerful for swimming. When I checked into their standing with ornithologists I found a complication, that the cormorants may be reassigned from the order Pelecaniformes ('pelican-like', four toes webbed together) to Suliformes ('gannet-like'), which I like, because gannets visit Halibut Point and pelicans don't.

Turkey dust bath
Speaking of big feet, I was watching some turkeys at a dust bath the other day and was very impressed with their ability to scratch away the turf.

Tom turkey
Spending all day on the ground, they have three specialized toes for walking, foraging, and running like the blazes when trouble comes along. Their fourth toe, the spur with the claw, makes Old Tom fierce in a heated moment. He's in an order with fighting cocks, Galliformes, 'chicken-like' but lordly.

Circling hawk
The feet I shudder to mention belong to raptors, which refers in Latin to 'seizing by force.' Their sinister talons can snatch warm bodies like mine from the treetops. They clench with a relentless, opposable hind claw. The ornithologists have decided to be fair-minded to birds of prey, according them the order Falconiformes.

A heroic crow chasing the hawk away

When hawks come around my robust passerine kin come out in force for the safety of the neighborhood. They don't rely on their feet for this feat, but on agility and esprit. 
I have to be alert all the time to stay out of trouble. Really, I don't bother anybody except the bugs in the bark.

I'll show you the trick. My toes help me scramble around the branches. They're state-of-the-art in perching design. Over, under, up and down, it's all the same to us nuthatches. 

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