Back to Back Issues Page
Gardening For Wildlife #55. Bird legs, what good are they.
February 18, 2008

Do you remember when Presidents, Washington and Lincoln each had their own birthdays?

Yeah, me too.

Do kids still learn about both presidents these days?

We actually had a few days with some sunshine this past week, boy did it look good and felt better.

A snow storm went North of here last week so we managed to miss a good dumping. Some areas received up to a foot of snow (Not me though).

We're not so fortunate this time around, however.

Like many of you, Sunday starts out with a nice mixed bag.

Freezing rain and rain much of Sunday gradually turned to snow in the evening and into Monday.

It doesn't look like we'll get as much as first forecasted, but that's fine with me.

Yep, this is turning out to be one "Ole Fashion" winter.

Almost like the ones we had growing up.

One good thing about the snow and rain, it is good for the lake levels.

The lakes have been shrinking up here the past decade or so.

So much so, that Lake Michigan reached a record low for a short time last December.

We've gained over an hour of daylight on the evening side since the first day of winter.

Yes, I keep track of that.

One day last week when it was snowing like crazy, we were blessed with at least 12 pair of Northern cardinals. At least that is what we could count at one time.

Plus I saw a couple at the neighbors as well.

We get 6 or 7 pair at a time all winter long, but to see that many was a real treat for all of us.

How cheerful it was to step outside this past Saturday. The sun was shining and the birds were singing away.

Spring can't be to far off.

It has been a difficult winter for wildlife. The rabbits are pruning some of my shrubs and the deer are coming more often into the neighborhood.

I don't encourage these animals, but I don't go out of my way to deter them either.

I do fence and net in some small trees and certain shrubs, however if they want to prune down others, it means less for me to do later on.

We invaded their territory, not the other way around.

I heard a fox family had moved into the area.

Well, I finally get to hear them some nights when I'm walking and one night I did see one of them walking across the ice covered pond.

When it finally saw me, it took of in the opposite direction.

I like to watch them run, as the bushy tail sticks straight out forming an almost straight line from the neck to tip of the tail.

It's good to know they are around,the rabbit population was getting out of control.

Were you involved with the Great Backyard Bird Count?

I'm sure Cornell will still take your numbers if you missed this past weekend.

To the right is a better picture of my nuthatch feeding from my hand.

As you can see, I'm just outside the door.

Sometimes he comes flying up before I'm out the door and other times he will play hard to get just like his girlfriend does.

For me it is difficult to stand still while I'm feeding and snapping at the same time.

In the past I've written on bird reproduction, bill shapes and their function. Feathers and flight were popular as was the design of a bird's lungs.

Most of us understand the different design and shapes of birds bills and why.

We know the important what for and why of feathers.

But, have you ever given much thought to .......

A Bird's Legs and Feet

No, no, no...............................

I'm not talking about a tasty drumstick.

I mean the make-up and design of bird legs.


Bird legs and feet serve several functions and it often depends on the species of bird.

For most birds, most of the bones are hollow. This is for flight purposes. A lighter bird makes for a quick take off.

In some cases, the bird has solid breast bones to help keep them under water like Loons and other diving birds. (Do you notice how low they sit in the water?)

These same birds need powerful legs to aid in take off as they run across the water to get airborne.

When it comes to legs and feet, virtually all species of birds have solid bones and bones that are more dense.

Birds need strong bones in their legs for the daily routines they are involved in.

Take a look at Raptors.

A bird of prey can fly in excess of 100 miles and hour and slam into another bird in flight.

Falcons have been recorded diving (stooping) at speeds of 220 MPH.


Can you imagine hitting another object at that speed? Even if the other object is moving, it is still a jolt.

Osprey dive into the water feet first nailing a fish.

Bald eagles snatch at the water to grab a fish without ripping a leg off or loosing flight.

Those are some strong legs and feet.

What about an owl or hawk that may pounce on a rabbit, snake or squirrel as they slam into earth?

And do it with a powerful bone breaking force.

On the prey that is.

Can you imagine that collision?

If you've ever been in an auto accident, or taken a serious fall, than you can just about imagine it.

Just because the birds are smaller doesn't mean the impact is any less for them.

It's not just the feet and sharp talons, but the legs must be strong or they would snap in several pieces on impact.

Have you watched a ground feeding bird hop back and forth as it unearths a meal?

What about the power of a woodpecker to stand their as it drills.

Nuthatches that need strong leg bones as it climbs upside down.

Chickadees and Goldfinches that swing upside down and twirl around need strong legs too.

Legs and feet that are so strong, they lock in position so perching and sleeping birds wont fall.

Water fowl have webbed feet, but they need something powerful to propel those feet.

What about the strong bones of an Ostrich or Emu as they run from danger or can cause death with one kick of their powerful legs.

You don't think those legs need strong, solid bones?

Great blue herons and other wading birds that stand there on one leg. If the bones weren't strong and solid, it would snap like a hollow reed.

We don't think about bird legs much do we?

Next time you are really observing your birds, watch how the legs and feet come into play in a birds daily routine.

For standing, hunting, launching into flight, nest building, holding onto seed and other food and much more.

As we age, out legs may get stiff and our joints ache. But what about our youth? How many times as a youngster, did you play or work hard one day and you were sore and stiff for the next few days?

We are in our physical prime mind you.

Can you imagine what life would be like for a bird if it woke up sore and stiff? No hunting or feeding for a couple of days.

What if there were young that depended on a successful hunt every day?

There is something else special about bird feet and legs.

They help regulate a bird's temperature.

Birds have the ability to increase and slow down blood flow to the scaly part of the legs and the feet.

In winter, the blood flow to these parts slows way down so there is minimal loss of heat from blood flow.

Herons can stand in 40 degree water.

Ducks and geese can swim in water that hasn't formed ice.

Because bird legs don't have pores, they don't perspire or lose moisture through them like we do, and moisture can't enter.

This is why birds can stand in the snow and hop in a bird bath without freezing there feet off.

Birds can go from the snow or bath to a metal feeder perch with no problems.

If we were to touch a metal perch on some of our winter days, our hand would stick for a short moment.

In summer, birds increase blood flow to the legs and feet to help keep them from over heating. As the blood flows through the legs it rushers near the surface of the cooler outer temperature.

The cooler blood runs back through and does it all over again.

Very much like the radiator on your automobile.

God made the birds as special creatures and as we learn more about them, we have to be more amazed an in awe of His wondrous creations.

One last thing on legs.

Hummingbird legs are virtually useless. Hummers can stand, but you never see them walking or hoping around.

Research does show hummer leg bones are indeed hollow.

You can learn more about hummingbirds here.

After all, these light weights of the avian world can't be weighted down now can they?

Well, It's time to fly for now.

Continue with your winter feeding and keep your water and feed clean.

When several birds congregate, sickness occur just as it is with us.

Often talk about stewardship and how we are to be stewards for our planet.

We are also to be good stewards toward and for each other.

Stewardship may be something as simple as a smile and may start with a stranger.

What better way to start the day than thanking our Lord and spreading cheer with a smile.

It's a beautiful day my friend.

Until next time.

"Treat the earth well:

It was not given to you by your parents,

It was loaned to you by your children.

We do not inherit the Earth from our

Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children."

Ancient Indian Proverb

Your friend indeed,

Ron Patterson

PS: Please feel free to pass this on to friends and family. Better yet, have them sign up so they can get their own newlstters. Thank you.

Gardening For Wildlife.

Back to Back Issues Page