These web-footed birds include the ducks, geese, and swans (Order Anseriformes). Their relatively long necks and often stubby, broad beaks make them an easy group to recognize. The 20 or so species that regularly inhabit Alabama's many ponds, rivers, lakes, and coastal waters are excellent swimmers. Many species, including the lesser scaup, hooded merganser, ruddy duck, and bufflehead, are superb divers and feed on fish and aquatic invertebrates such as snails and mussels. Others, like the Canada goose, mallard, gadwall, American wigeon, and blue-winged teal, are dabblers who feed on vegetation and animal life near the surface or by grazing. Almost all of the waterfowl that come to Alabama are winter visitors escaping the cold, snow, and ice at higher latitudes that make finding food difficult during the winter months. These migrants typically start arriving in the state in late September and October and set out for their more northern breeding grounds in March and April. Only the wood duck is a common year-round resident, although domestic Canada geese and mallards have been introduced and have become pests in many areas, especially at golf courses and parks. Domestic waterfowl introduced into the wild pose problems because they compete with native species, alter habitats, and spread disease. Many of the waterfowl, as well as the wild turkey, northern bobwhite (Order Galliformes), American woodcock, Wilson’s snipe (Order Charadriiformes), and mourning dove (Order Columbiformes), are also considered gamebirds and are regularly hunted during the appropriate season.
The waders include the herons, bitterns, egrets, ibises, and the wood stork (Order Ciconiiformes). These birds tend to be tall and typically have long necks, long skinny legs, and toes that allow them to move efficiently through shallow, mucky waters in search of fish, frogs, snakes, and other aquatic life. Some, like the herons, egrets, and bitterns, jab their prey with their dagger-like beaks, while others, like ibises and storks, move their sensitive bills constantly through the water and quickly grab anything that feels like food. Approximately 15 different species of waders are found in the state. The great blue heron and the white great egret are two of the largest and most commonly occurring species. Most waders are active during the day (diurnal), but two species, the black-crowned night-heron and yellow-crowned night-heron, prefer to feed after the sun goes down (nocturnal).
Birds of Prey
Birds of prey include the osprey, kites, eagles, hawks, and owls. Although owls (Order Strigiformes) are not closely related to the other birds of prey (Order Falconiformes), both groups have toes with sharp talons (claws) on their feet, which are used to capture their prey, and hooked beaks for tearing flesh. Most birds of prey are active during the day, but owls hunt primarily at night.
Shorebirds and Gulls
The shorebirds (Order Charadriiformes) include plovers, oystercatchers, sandpipers, gulls, and terns. Some members of this large and diverse group of birds visit Alabama to rest and refuel as they migrate through the state (for example, the solitary sandpiper, semipalmated sandpiper, and the white-rumped sandpiper) or spend the winter on the coast (for example the greater yellowlegs, lesser yellowlegs, sanderling, and dunlin). Of the 35 species of plovers and sandpipers that are regularly found in the state, only about seven species actually breed within its borders, and only one, the killdeer, commonly nests throughout the state. The other breeding species (such as the snowy plover, Wilson's plover, American oystercatcher, and willet) are mostly coastal breeders. Many of these species are threatened with extirpation (disappearance from the state) and extinction because they inhabit areas that have been altered by human growth and development.
Woodpeckers (Order Piciformes) are the carpenters of the bird world. Their chisel-like beak and long, barbed, and often sticky tongues serve as excellent tools for excavating and capturing wood-burrowing insects. Alabama is home to eight species, and all but the yellow-bellied sapsucker, a winter visitor, are year-round residents. Woodpeckers also use their bills to excavate cavities for nesting and roosting, and for drumming, an activity practiced by both sexes at the start of the breeding season (spring) to help establish territories and attract mates. The northern flicker, also known as the yellowhammer, is the state bird. It prefers open, park-like areas for nesting, and it is not unusual to see this species on the ground feeding on ants.
The most diverse group of birds in the world and in the state is the perching birds, or passerines (Order Passeriformes). These generally small birds are known for their often elaborate vocalizations that they use to establish territories and attract mates. In Alabama, around 140 regularly occur. Within this group are many year-round residents that inhabit yards and farms and visit feeders, including species such as the blue jay, tufted titmouse, Carolina chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren, northern mockingbird, eastern towhee, northern cardinal, eastern meadowlark, red-winged blackbird, and house finch. Others are transients, and the terrestrial and aquatic habitats of Alabama provide the critical food and resting areas as these species make their long, energy-intensive, and dangerous migrations between their wintering and breeding grounds. Such species include the rose-breasted grosbeak, Swainson's thrush, gray-cheeked thrush, bank swallow, magnolia warbler, Cape May warbler, Blackburnian warbler, and bobolink. Many passerines end their journey in Alabama and are recognized as either summer or winter residents. Summer residents spend their winter months in places such as the West Indies, Mexico, and Central and South America and include the indigo bunting, orchard oriole, blue grosbeak, summer tanager, scarlet tanager, purple martin, cliff swallow, barn swallow, and red-eyed vireo. Many of these migrants fly over the Gulf of Mexico and take off and land from the very important natural coastal habitats of Alabama. The peak periods for most species that migrate through Alabama are late March through late May in the spring and early September through early November in the autumn. Summer residents leave the state for the winter because their food becomes more difficult to find during the colder months of the year.
Birdwatching Areas and Conservation
There are many excellent areas for viewing and studying birds scattered throughout the state. For example, on the Gulf Coast, Dauphin Island, Fort Morgan and other coastal areas are favorite locations for birds and birders alike. These areas offer birders the greatest variety of species, but because of rapid development, they also have some of the most threatened habitats and birds in the state. Federal lands, such as Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in the Tennessee Valley and Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge along the border with Georgia on the Coastal Plain, provide important sanctuaries for wintering waterfowl, summer and winter residents, and transients. National forests, including Bankhead and Talladega, as well as state parks such as Monte Sano, Cheaha, Oak Mountain, and Buck's Pocket offer much-needed natural habitat for birds and other animals and can offer exceptional areas to watch and study birds. The state has established a number of birding trails, such as the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail, that offer interested people excellent places to observe and enjoy birds.
Gill, F. B. 2006. Ornithology, 3rd ed., W.H. Freeman and Company, New York, New York