The Winged Ones: How birds are like us and how they differ from us in their daily lives


This lesson was developed by Dr. Raymond Pierotti, Division of Biological Sciences, University of Kansas

Birds seen along the Kansas River can be broken into three basic groupings:

  1. Birds seen in or on the river itself, primarily ducks, geese, swans, grebes, loons, cormorants, gulls, and terns;
  2. Birds seen along sand and mudflats along the shore, primarily herons, ibises, rails, cranes, stilts, plovers, and sandpipers;
  3. Birds seen in the trees along the river, which may include most other birds, including hawks, owls, eagles, falcons, kingfishers, and a myriad of small perching birds.

We will concentrate on the first two groups; the first because species in this group fall into the general category of charismatic megafauna, being large and relatively conspicuous, both in sight and sound; and the second because it contains some large and conspicuous species, including the bird that should probably be the avian symbol of the Kaw, the Great-Blue Heron  This second group can be used as indicators of the ecological diversity of the river because they feed on small vertebrates and invertebrates. This means that every time you see these birds on a mudflat or sandbar, or wading in the shallow backwaters along the Kaw, they indicate the presence of a wide range of other smaller species that are more difficult to see but that are also present as part of the fauna of the river.

The third group contains the most species, but only a few of these are charismatic, notably the Bald Eagle, the symbol of our country. Bald Eagles are noteworthy also because they have come back from near extinction resulting from pesticide contamination in the 50’s and 60’s. In many large carnivorous birds, isomers of DDT and DDE caused reproductive problems, including thinning of eggshells and the feminization of male embryos, which produced individuals who were genetically male, but effectively neutered in terms of reproduction.

At this point, it is probably worthwhile to point out that birds are exemplars of animal families, with males and females pairing together to raise offspring in more than 90% of known species. Unlike mammals, where males can be hunted without doing serious damage to the population (as in deer), removing male birds from a population results in future generations being deprived of potential fathers, thus lowering the total number of offspring that can be produced by a population.

Different Types of Birds

Click on the name of the bird to go to the Cornell Ornithological Lab species accounts, which include photographs, audiofiles with songs and calls, species descriptions used in this lesson, and classroom materials. Information on all these birds (and others) can be found on a county-by-county basis on the Kansas Ornithological Society website.


Among the most obvious birds on the Kaw are ducks and geese. The most common duck is

the Mallard, Anas platyrhyncos, the quintessential prairie waterbird, a species that evolved to nest in the potholes, or natural ponds of the American prairie, and has either invaded or been introduced into most areas of North America where forests were cut down and replaced with grassy areas surrounding small bodies of water. Male mallards are easily recognizable, with their deep green heads with a white neck ring, bright yellow beaks, and bright orange feet. Female Mallards share the bright orange feet with their mates, but their heads are brown and they have an orange bill with dark smudges. Females are less conspicuous because they sit on the nest, and camouflage helps both them and their eggs to survive. Outside of the breeding season (fall and winter) male Mallards molt into an “eclipse” plumage, which resembles that of the female.

Almost every species of American duck might be seen on or along the Kaw, especially during

migration in Spring and Fall, but only the only species of ducks that breed along the Kaw are Mallards and the beautiful Wood Duck, Aix sponsa, that nests in holes in trees along the river, especially along backwaters. Woodies are one of the few ducks you might actually see perching in a tree. Males have a green and black head with white stripes and a pink and white bill. Females are a lovely dove gray with a brownish back and a conspicuous white eye patch on a gray head. If you are very lucky you might get to see young wood ducks fledge from their tree hole nests by jumping out of the hole into the water below.

The final species of duck that breeds locally is the Blue-winged Teal, Anas discors, which occurs primarily in small marshy ponds and backwaters. Teal are small ducks that fly very fast, and the males do not quack, but produce a high, peeping whistle. In flight the sky blue wing patch is very distinct, but this is hidden when the bird is on the water.

Other ducks that you are likely to see during migration include the Bufflehead, Bucephala albeola, which is obvious because the males have a bright white “scarf” on a round black head. Other similar sized ducks with these males with only a white ear spot are females or juvenile males. Do not confuse Buffleheads with Goldeneyes, Bucephala clangula which are another species of duck where the males have a white spot in front of a conspicuous yellow eye. A very different type of duck is the Common Merganser, Mergus merganser, which have a long narrow profile compared to other ducks. Males are mostly white whit black backs, green heads, and a narrow red bill. Females of this species are gray with rust colored heads and white throats, and look like males that have started to rust in the rain. 

Geese are closely related to ducks, both are in the family Anatidae, but geese are larger with longer necks. The goose of the Kaw is a former migrant that has become a year-round resident and breeder, the Canada Goose, Branta candensis.  During the summer you can see families of geese with offspring of various ages attended by their mothers and fathers. During mid-summer (July-August) you may encounter groups of Canada Geese along the river that consist of a mother and father and their nearly full-grown, but flightless offspring. These birds will not fly away, because the young birds have not mastered that skill, so they will often try and retreat into the woods along the river to get away from you. (It is important to realize that young birds can be as big as their parents while not yet knowing how to fly.) An ethical person will not take advantage of this and will give the family their space. This species also sort of symbolizes spring and fall along the river as large flocks migrate overhead in their characteristic V shape, honking to one another as they fly. This behavior has given Canada Geese another common name, which is “honker”.

Another common goose that sometimes joins Canada Geese during migration, but is not a local breeder, is the Snow Goose, Chen carerulescens. Snow Geese are high Arctic breeders and are all white with pink beaks and black wing-tips. They have a dark form, called Blue Geese, which have dark bodies and are probably evolving into a new species.

If you are fortunate, you might see the most magnificent of waterbirds, the Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus. Tundra Swans used to be called Whistling Swans, because of their high-pitched calls. These large, long-necked birds are sometimes seen flying overhead in flocks, but the lucky observer may actually see them on the river itself.

Two smaller types of aquatic bird can regularly be seen on the Kaw and its surrounding waters. One species is the American Coot, Fulica americana. Coots are sometimes mistaken for ducks, but they have a white chicken-like bill and an all black body. They swim a jerky fashion. They are one of the few species of birds where the chicks are more brightly colored than the adults, with bright red beaks and orange and red heads. The other small bird on the river is the Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps, which is a diving bird with a dark body and gets its name from its white bill, which is “pied” by a black stripe that crosses the middle from top to bottom. Pied-billed Grebes rarely fly and if pursued dive under the surface and swim underwater. The only other species that do this are cormorants and mergansers, both of which are much larger.  

Cormorants are a genuine aquatic bird, and the species you might encounter along the Kaw is the Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritis. Double-crested Cormorants are dark bodied with a conspicuously yellow throat and facial area. They are usually seen either swimming low in the water because their plumage is not water repellant. The other place you see them is perched on dead trees or sandbars with their wings spread, which is their way of drying out their feathers after a period of diving and swimming underwater.

There are several species of gulls, family Laridae, that can be seen on bodies of water or around plowed fields in Eastern Kansas, but the larger of the two most common species, especially in winter and spring is the Herring Gull, Larus argentatus, which is the quintessential sea gull. Usually you see adults along the Kaw, but it is important to remember that gulls occur in several plumages, from an all-brownish grey color in first year birds that changes over a four year period into the elegant light grey and white birds with black wing-tips that represent the adult plumage.

The most common gull species in Kansas is the Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis, which is not really a sea gull in any sense of the world because it breeds and spends almost all its life on bodies of fresh water throughout the central US and Canada. Ring-billed Gulls can be distinguished from Herring Gulls because they are smaller and their legs and feet are yellow unlike the pink of Herring Gulls. Also their bills are a paler yellow with the black ring near the tip that gives them their name. Overall Ring-bills are slighter and more delicate-looking than Herring Gulls. They also have higher pitched calls than Herring Gulls, which have the classic “seagull sound”. At first you might confuse these two species, but once you have looked closely at both species the differences become obvious.

Terns are smaller and more delicate looking than gulls and their flight is very distinctive, being sort of a combination of bat and very large swallow. Like swallow, and other birds that hover, they have forked tails. The tern you are most likely to see is the Least Tern, Sterna antillarum Least Terns breed in Kansas and hang out around sandbars. One major difference between gulls and terns is that terns fly or hover above the water and then dive for the small fish that are their primary food. Other species of tern that migrate through this area are Forster’s Tern, Sterna forsteri and Common Tern, Sterna hirundo. These two species are both larger than the Least Tern and both have red beaks and black caps that go all the way to the bill. In contrast, Least Terns have a white forehead that separates their black cap from their bill.

Wading and Shore Birds

One of the most dramatic birds along the Kaw is the Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias. This large bluish-gray bird with a rusty colored neck, white face, and long yellow bill is in many ways the spirit of the Kaw, wading through the shallows looking for frogs and fish, or flying silently overhead, its long slow wing beats regal as its long legs trail behind. Great Blue Herons nest high in trees and fly back and forth from their nests to their feeding areas.

The other common heron of the Kaw is rarely seen, but very interesting. This is the cryptic and solitary Green Heron, Buteroides viresecens. This beautiful, chicken-sized bird has orange-yellow legs, black crown feathers over a chestnut colored face and neck, a dark bill, and a dark back that shows highlights of iridescent green that gives this species its name. Green Herons are typically seen perched on a branch or wading along the edge of backwaters where they wait patiently for fish. If startled Green Herons squawk loudly, which is often how they are first detected. Green Herons are known to use bait to catch prey, by dropping small bits of food into the water and catching fish and crayfish that are attracted to the bait.

In fall and spring you may also see the tall white Great Egret, Ardea alba along the Kaw. This tall white bird, with long black legs, and a bright yellow bill is hard to mistake for any other species.

There are many species of shore birds that can be seen along the Kaw and the fields that surround it, especially during spring and fall migrations. One species of sandpiper that breeds in Kansas and might be seen on sandbars is the Spotted Sandpiper, Actitis macularia. During the summer breeding season, this species is the only sandpiper with round black spots on its chest to go with its brown back and orange-pink bill. Spotted Sandpipers are also distinctive because their tails and rear ends bob up and down as they walk.

The commonly seen, and more often heard, Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous is the most common breeding species of plover in Kansas, although it is rarely seen on the Kaw itself, and more often in fields or even on golf courses. Killdeer look like they are wearing sunglasses across their white faces and they have two conspicuous black bands across their white chests.

Two species sort of bridge the distinction between water birds and land birds because they feed in the water yet spend all the rest of their time on land. These are the Belted Kingfisher and the Bald Eagle. Both of these species are conspicuous components of the avifauna of the Kaw.

The Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon digs burrows into the banks of rivers and streams where it raises its offspring. With its white front and bluish head and back with a white color and belly and a heavy dark bill, kingfishers often announce their presence with their loud rattling cries that sound like a very large cricket. Kingfishers dive from perches above the water to catch fish under the surface. Males lack the rusty belt that gives the species its name, but both male and female have conspicuous blue-gray chest bands and prominent crests.

The Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus nests in tall trees along the Kaw in huge nests it builds from sticks. This species also spends the winter along the Kaw, especially in areas where they can feed on fish, as they do below Bowersock Dam in Lawrence. Bald Eagles are predators on fish, but when fish are hard to obtain they will switch to other water birds, such as ducks, geese, and gulls. It is important to keep in mind that not all Bald Eagles have the conspicuous white head and tail. Immature Bald Eagles take five years to become adults, which is one reason the species took so long to recover from its population decline due to DDT in the 1950’s and 60’s. Immature Bald Eagles show a patchwork of mostly brown feathers with a few white feathers occurring all over the body.  Bald Eagles have a high-pitched piping sort of call that sounds pretty silly coming from such an impressive looking bird. In flight eagles are very large with broad wings with long primary feathers that look almost like fingers.

Another conspicuous bird that feeds on fish, but spends the rest of its time high in trees or even perched on power poles is the Osprey, Pandion haliaetus, or “fish hawk”. Ospreys can be distinguished from eagles because they have white breasts and bellies and a dark eye stripe that runs all the way to the beak on their otherwise white heads. They also have long legs that they use to pluck fish from just below the surface.

Laura Calwell,
Mar 12, 2010, 10:07 AM
Laura Calwell,
Mar 12, 2010, 10:08 AM