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)
For the first few days of a loon chick’s life, both of its parents are ever-present, catching and delivering small fish, crayfish and invertebrates for their one or two chicks. Their initial buoyancy and their lack of experience prevent the chicks from procuring their own food for the first month or so, although they soon learn how to chase fish. During the first couple of weeks, the parent loon, having caught a crayfish, small fish or other prey, swims right up to its young and offers the chick its next meal. The chick grasps the food while it is still in its parent’s beak. The parent lets go, and the chick attempts to swallow the crayfish (in this case). In the beginning, the chick often drops its meal. The parent then dives down to retrieve it and once again offers the same crayfish to the chick. This sequence of events can happen over and over until the chick finally manages to hold onto and shift the crayfish into a head-first position in order to swallow it. By the third week this beak-to-beak service begins to be replaced by a practice designed to teach the chick how to capture its own meals. The parents start dropping the food they’ve caught for their chick into the water in front of them, forcing the chick to dive and develop the skills necessary for survival. (The pictured loon chick is well into its second week. Close examination reveals that the chick’s “egg tooth,” used to exit the egg, is still present at the tip of its beak. By week #3 it is not evident.)