Tails of Birds

A Killdeer defending her nest with egg soon to hatch. Photo by Charlotte Lukes.

Charlotte and I, along with our friend Beth, were impressed with the huge bill of the big black bird we observed hunting for food this morning in our neighbor’s field. Surely it had to be a Raven, we thought. Had it taken to the air offering us a good look at its tail, positive identification would have come quickly. The Raven’s tail is wedge-shaped, coming to a general point, while the Crow’s is gently rounded at the end.

The more one thinks about birds’ tails the more you realize how important they are to the birds as well as the birdwatchers. One tail feather is referred to as a rectrix (RECK-trix) while all of the tail feathers of one bird are referred to collectively as the rectrices (RECK-tri-sees). It’s interesting to note that, in spite of humans not having tails, we do have tailbones. Even more fascinating is the scientific name of the tailbone, coccyx (KOK-siks), from the Greek word “kokkux” the cuckoo, the thought being that the tailbone of a person is shaped like the bill of a cuckoo.

Examine the lives of different species of birds and you will be amazed at the dozens of interesting and very specific uses of their tails. Living in a good Ruffed Grouse woods has offered us many close and prolonged looks at the cock’s fanned tail. It serves as an efficient rudder helping to safely steer the bird at high speeds around and between tree trunks and branches, but the resplendent strutting cock bird, tail so magnificently outstretched and fanned, surely relies upon this beautiful adornment in wooing his lady-love.

Even though I’m not a coin collector, I was deeply impressed with seeing my first quarter featuring Oklahoma and its state bird, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Immediately my mind took me back some 57 years to the time I spent in the U.S. Army at Fort Sill, OK and where none other than this stunningly spectacular flycatcher turned me into a serious birdwatcher. The male’s elegant tail, 8 to 10 inches long, divides while the bird is wheeling and chasing after insects in the air. What a pleasure it has been seeing one of these awesome birds, considerably out of its normal range, here in Door County every several years.

Our friend Tom Erdman holding a Broad-winged Hawk. The wide brown and white bands in the tail help to identify this hawk in the air. Photo by Roy Lukes.

The spread tails of many birds add lift to their flight. A tail fanned widely and downward serves as a brake when a bird comes in for a landing. Compared to the generally short tails of ducks – rather straight fliers – the tails of Ravens, Crows and Northern Harriers are quite long and very efficient. These birds are capable of performing some spectacular “flip-flops” and” loop-the-loops” during their spring courtship flight displays.

The extremely stiff tail feathers of woodpeckers serve as a prop, a third leg of support, tripod-like, when the bird clings to trees and hammers into the wood in search of food. A White-breasted Nuthatch, on the other hand, has unusually big and strong feet which enables the bird to search for food on trees and branches upward, downward or sideways without having to use its relatively stubby tail as a third support.

Some birds’ rectrices move in perfect synchronization with their singing, almost as though they were helping push or pump out the notes. I was overjoyed the first time I watched a Winter Wren, which has an unusually short up-turned tail, sing its unbelievably intricate and high-pitched song up and down the scale, over and over. It’s a very fast, long, chattery, bubbly song that always has reminded me of an old-fashioned sewing machine or spinning jenny at work. I thought for sure that any second its little tail feathers would pop right out of the wren’s body!

Most songbirds have 12 tail feathers, though some, including hummingbirds, swifts and cuckoos have 10, while the Ruffed Grouse sports 16. The Ring-necked Pheasant (imported from China) 18 and the American White Pelican 24. Good bird artists are very careful to show the proper number of tail feathers on each species they present in their work.

Frequently it is the ornamentally decorated tail, such as on the male Peacock, or the long flowing rectrices of the Swallow-tailed Kite, which are such attractive and positive field marks in identifying the birds. Roger Tory Peterson, in describing the adult Bald Eagle’s white tail and white head, said the bird is “all field mark!”

The Greater “beep beep” Roadrunner would surely lose much of its famous profile and character minus its long jaunty tail, and I can’t imagine a sleek Barn Swallow sweeping the sunny farm sky in summer in pursuit of insects minus its graceful, deeply-forked tail that undoubtedly provides this bird with such extreme maneuverability.

A Red-headed Woodpecker on the Lukes’ suet feeder. Photo by Roy Lukes.

Charlotte and I have fond memories of photographing a nesting Killdeer and watching her slowly raise and spread her tail threateningly when we got too close. The striking, highly visible, cinnamon-colored rump patch, extending from the similar color of the bases of her rectrices, was her warning to us. Without uttering a sound, she was telling us to “SCRAM!”

Hawks in flight can be very challenging to identify, but careful observation of their tails can help considerably. Northern Harriers, just now returning to the county to nest, and the Rough-legged Hawk, soon passing through the county on its way northward, both have so-called white rump patches, actually the white bases of the rectrices. The upward angle of the Harrier’s wings, the dihedral, easily sets this bird apart from the Rough-legged Hawk whose wings are held more straightly outward from its body, and whose outstretched wings show a dark and light pattern. The short widely extended tail feathers of a soaring adult Red-tailed Hawk are very easy to detect.

Several bird species bob their tail when perched in a tree or upon the ground. Included is the Eastern Phoebe that quickly extends its tail upward, then slowly lowers it. One of the many warblers, some only transient visitors to the county as they migrate northward, that’s noted for its tail-bobbing is the beautiful Cape May Warbler. It’s when these birds are perched high in trees and difficult to identify that their tail-bobbing habit is an instant field mark for the birdwatchers to use. One of the few nesting species of shorebirds here is the Spotted Sandpiper. This fascinating little bird constantly bobs its tail as it walks along the edge of the water in search of food.

Come spring and the patiently and eagerly awaited arrival of more birds, I think we’ll flip a coin. Heads we’ll work in the garden and tails – we’ll go birding. I’m already predicting that tails will win!