WHIDBEY BIRDING | Living on one leg is not as odd as you’d think

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Today I’m birding from inside my home office. It’s not a bad place on this cold, rainy morning, as several species stop by my suet feeders, which hang inches from my window.

Spotted Towhees, Song Sparrows, Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Northern Flickers and Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers visit regularly.

In addition, large numbers of Dark-eyed Juncos drop in, forced down into the lowlands by cold, snowy weather in the mountains. They dart in, grab a bite and escape. Others stage in the nearby pyracantha bush or along the window ledge waiting their turn.

I watch carefully for a particular Chestnut-backed Chickadee, which is missing one leg. It regularly stops by each morning. “One Leg” can maneuver around the suet feeder as expertly as the two-legged birds and appears as aggressive and healthy as the other chickadees. In the chickadee world, if one had to loose an appendage, a leg would be the best option.

Some birds will stand for long periods with one leg tucked up for warmth, hidden in their belly feathers. Shorebirds are famous for hopping around on one leg, pogo-stick style, giving the impression they are missing a leg. But if you wait long enough, they finally reveal their full set of legs. One Leg, however, is clearly missing a leg.

Suddenly, the birds scramble for cover; the feeders are deserted. I search the sky and see a Red-tailed Hawk sailing over the house. I’m reminded that for birds of prey, like the Red-tail, that catches and holds their prey in place with talons as they feed, the loss of a leg would likely have more dire consequences.

We’ve all watched robins hopping on the lawn. Most small birds use a two-footed hop to maneuver around. With such short legs, a hop gains them more distance than walking would. Some small, ground-foraging birds, our towhee being a good example, hop forward and back (like a bunny hop in double time) to scratch up insects and grubs.

Crows both walk and hop. Moving up in size from the crow, most birds are more efficient walkers. Flightless, or nearly flightless birds such as the roadrunner, kiwi, emus, rhea, ostrich, cassowary and, of course, the penguin, depend completely on their legs for propulsion and survival.

Although herons and egrets are excellent fliers, leg length determines foraging opportunities. The smaller Green Heron assumes a position on a low branch to capture fish, whereas a Great Blue Heron, with longer legs, has the freedom to walk into deeper water to seek the same prey.

The Snowy Egret employs its feet in an unusual way to catch dinner. The bird’s legs are black but the toes look as if they’ve been dunked in bright yellow poster paint. The egret holds its toes just under the water as a lure to attract small fish, which it snatches up with its long beak.

Ospreys consume only fish and catch all their food by diving into the water with outstretched talons. These birds carry their prey to a convenient branch to consume it. Spines on the pads of the soles of the toes help hold the slippery fish in place.

Loons, grebes and all the diving ducks depend on their legs for propulsion under water. Guillemots, which use their wings to “fly” underwater, employ their legs and feet as a rudder.

I remember years ago teaching nature guides in a remote area of northeastern Mexico. One day, the field station biologist brought me a brilliant pink flamingo that had become entangled in an electrical wire and suffered a severely broken leg. After examining and photographing the calm bird and spending as much time as I could appreciating the bird’s glorious cotton candy plumage, stunning golden eyes and downward curved, bi-colored beak, I returned the bird to the biologist with tears in my eyes. There was no option but to euthanize the bird. A flamingo with one leg would never survive since they forage for hours each day by walking though shallow water.

I assumed that would be true of most birds larger than a chickadee. Curious,

I consulted bird research on the topic and found I was wrong. In a two-year study of 98 raptors and vultures scientists discovered that

14 percent of the birds had sustained injury, mainly missing a leg or toe or suffering a broken talon. These birds had not only survived, they maintained the same body condition as uninjured birds. Somehow, these injured raptors had adapted to life without full use of legs and feet.

Finally One Leg appears outside my window. It folds into the queue of juncos. Then it darts to the suet, clings to the metal cage, flutters its wings for balance and pecks at the yummy offering. Without a thought, we assume, of its one-legged status.

Frances Wood is the author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching” in the West. To check out her Web site, click here.

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