BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)
Our shorelines are being patrolled by a gluttonous bully that flips away large objects with impunity and intimidates everything that crosses his path—and he stands only a few inches tall. With its chunky body, bulky neck, wedge-shaped bill, and scrawny orange legs, the ruddy turnstone looks like it’s itching for a fight—and it often gets its wish, chasing birds much larger than itself.
Watching ruddy turnstones feed is like seeing tons of heavy equipment—bulldozers, land graders, and backhoes—clearing a piece of land for development. Living up to their names, a line of turnstones will tirelessly push around and overturn everything in their paths, including rocks, pebbles, seaweed clumps, and shells. Every now and then one or more of these brazen shorebirds will stop to gulp down whatever they happen to uncover. And, as opportunistic feeders, they’re not really picky about what they eat, including everything from insect larvae to crustaceans, mollusks, small fish, carrion, and even discarded human food. Whatever they uncover usually goes immediately down the hatch as they continue to march along completely unfettered by anything else around.
A Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) holds a small mollusk that he uncovered by pushing aside debris in a tidal zone. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)
This quote from John James Audubon makes feeding turnstones sound like weightlifters working out in Gold’s Gym: “They use not only the bill and head, but also the breast, pushing the object with all their strength and reminding me of the labor which I have undergone in turning over a large turtle.”
Many birders describe the turnstone’s supreme aggressiveness when feeding. They will not allow any birds—even other turnstones—to come near them. When another bird does get too close, a turnstone will rush toward the intruder jabbing repeatedly with its dagger-like bill until the other bird backs away. Birding guru Roger Tory Peterson described how a high-tide invasion of horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay was matched by an influx of thousands of shorebirds, including huge flocks of turnstones: “The spectacle has been likened to an invasion of miniature armored tanks, with the birds acting as the counterattacking forces.”
When it’s not ravenously feeding or beating up other birds, the ruddy turnstone is also a champion traveler, wintering from the southeastern and Gulf coasts of the US and Central and South America—all the way down to Tierra del Fuego while nesting in northern Greenland, Ellesmere Island, Victoria Island, and other top-of-the-world spots inside the Arctic Circle.
So the next time you’re visiting the seashore and see a little bird with variegated feathers brazenly strutting along—picking fights and flipping over rocks—you’ll know you’re looking at a ruddy turnstone.
Text excerpted from book: BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press).
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.