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Blane Klemek column: Many birds rely on the waters of Minnesota

It's no wonder that more than 400 species of birds occur in Minnesota.

Our state is replete with diverse habitats that range from prairie to forest to abundant wetlands, lakes and rivers. Some birds are summer residents, while others call Minnesota home the year around. And though hard to understand, some birds actually only winter here - snowy owls and snow buntings, for example.

With such species diversity that enrich our lives as we observe these many fascinating birds that surround us, we are bound to marvel at the many different adaptations that have evolved in birds. The way some of them fly, the way some of them forage and hunt, and the way some of them swim and walk - it's all very interesting. Among them are the species of birds that dive from the air.

Take the belted kingfisher for instance. This scrappy pigeon-size bird doesn't look much like a water bird; its feet are very small, its toes are not webbed, and its head and bill are disproportionately large. Yet this bird dives with astonishing force, precision, and agility.

I have watched kingfishers - which are primarily sit-and-wait predators of small fishes - perform a couple of hunting techniques. One method involves simply hovering above the water, head raised slightly, and suddenly dropping headfirst into the water with its wings tucked close to its side. In an instant the kingfisher emerges with a struggling fish.

Kingfishers are territorial and know their particular stretch of turf very well. Favorite perches that provide these birds with optimum ambush sites with clear and unobstructed views of the water below are used again and again. If you know of a site where kingfishers frequently occur, watch them and you will see that they return to special "hunting spots" regularly and predictably.

Another method is simply launching itself in dive-bomb fashion from one of these favored perches. From heights as high as 20 or more feet, the squat little bird propels straight down, and with a splash, is almost as quickly back to its perch with a meal.

Other birds dive too. Ospreys, or fish hawks as they are sometimes called, are champions at catching fish. Unlike bald eagles that feed on a variety of animal matter, including fish and carrion, ospreys are almost exclusively fish eaters.

An osprey generally sights its prey while hovering above the surface of the water. It will then drop from the sky, feet-first, to catch a fish. Holding its wings vertically above itself and out of the way, the osprey hits the water with such force and speed that it quite often disappears momentarily under the surface before emerging with its prize gripped tightly in its sharp talons.

Ospreys also have a unique way of transporting fish. Once in the air and on its way to a feeding site, the bird will usually position a fish headfirst and in line with its own body. Furthermore, the osprey's feet are specifically adapted for fish grabbing. With reversible outer toes and sharp projections on the undersides of their feet, slippery fish aren't apt to slip away.

Though we don't have brown pelicans in our neck of the woods - our species is the American white pelican - this bird is a worthy mention. Both pelicans are fish eaters, but the white pelican fishes in a vastly different manner. Unlike its cousin of the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, the white pelican does not dive. Instead, this bird cooperates with conspecifics by forming lines in the water and herding the fish ahead of them while beating the surface with their wings.

But the brown pelicans' fishing method involves graceful and pinpoint dives that are often performed with other pelicans hunting together. After the pelican has sighted its prey from dozens of feet above the water, it dives headfirst with its bill completely closed. A second before its plunge into the water occurs, the wings are extended behind the bird. Once underwater the pelican lifts its upper mandible and opens its pouch like a giant scoop, catching the fish - and a lot of water - at that precise moment.

Other birds that dive into the water are less dramatic. The loon is a champion diver able to reach depths of up to 100 feet, possibly more, as they hunt for food. Penguins, too, are amazing underwater divers and swimmers. What's more, the penguins' exit out of the water is probably more impressive than their entrance; some species are able to launch themselves from the ocean depths onto land and ice.

Indeed, water is life, and birds of all kinds have adapted to the dynamic environments of oceans, lakes, wetlands, and rivers. From the diminutive marsh wren clinging to cattail leaves while delivering its tinkling song to the stealthy and deliberate hunter within the great blue heron stalking wetland shallows to the powerful dives of loons chasing a fish far below the surface, it's no small wonder we like observing them as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.


Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at