How do herons, egrets, bitterns, kingfishers, loons and other fish-eating birds with spear-shaped bills capture their prey? Do they use their bill as a spear and pierce through a fish, or do they grab the fish between their mandibles? You often read about one of these birds “spearing” a fish. However, a majority of these birds, most of the time, do not spear fish, but open and shut their bills fast enough to capture a fish in them — the spear shape of their bill lends itself to the tong-like action it performs. In addition, its shape enhances the movement of the bill through the water as the bird dives (its head or body) into the water to grasp the fish between its upper and lower mandibles.
One exception to this rule is the Anhinga, which does run its bill (which is equipped with backward grooves to prevent slippage) through fish in order to capture them. After spearing a fish, an Anhinga then shakes it vigorously off its bill, tosses it in the air, and catches and swallows it headfirst. (Photo: Great Blue Heron)
If you’ve watched a heron, egret or bittern for any amount of time, you know they strike suddenly and rapidly at their prey . They can do this because of the structure of their neck bones. According to David Sibley, modification of the sixth cervical vertebra lets them draw their neck into an “S” shape and then shoot their head and bill forward with lightning speed. This adaptation also allows these birds to fold their neck while flying, which improves the aerodynamics of their flight. (Photograph is of a Great Blue Heron.)
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