On hot, Louisiana summer days, it is not uncommon to see dark birds with long, out-stretched necks and fanned tails, soaring over swamps. These strange birds are anhingas, also locally called water turkeys or snake birds. No doubt their water turkey name is derived from their turkey-like tails.
Anhingas have wetable feathers, so they swim with their bodies submerged. They propel themselves underwater with their feet, and some believe they swim by flying through the water with their wings. When they surface, their long necks poke up and they may swim about, body below the surface and head and neck darting to and fro (hence the name “snake bird”).
Due to their feathers being wetable, anhingas cannot fly away after swimming. Instead, they must climb out of the water, using beak and feet, and dry out before taking to the wing. During this time they are vulnerable and will quickly dive into the water if frightened. For years, ornithologists believed that anhingas would sit in trees with wings spread to simply dry themselves. Close observation revealed that they often assume such a position hours after swimming or even following long soaring flights. Physiological studies indicated that anhingas produce very little metabolic heat and that they loose heat very easily, especially during the process of drying their feathers. Now it is believed that anhingas adopt their spread-wing stance in order to absorb heat so that they can maintain peak activity.Anhingas eat all sorts of aquatic critters, but when they choose fish, the morsels are speared with the beak. After the bird surfaces, it adroitly flips the fish into the air and catches it head first, followed by a gulp!
Louisiana anhingas nest in late spring and early summer. They construct very loosely built stick nests on branches of cypress or willows where they lay three to five bluish-white eggs. After three to four weeks, the altricial young hatch. They soon are covered with whitish down feathers and are fed by the parents. Fledging takes about another month.
Anhingas are not uncommon in the New Orleans area, but they are rarely observed.
Similar species: The cormorant looks and acts a little like an anhinga, but there are several differences. Anhingas often soar (flying in circles without flapping their wings), cormorants never do. Anhingas have a sharply pointed beak, and cormorants have a hooked beak at the tip.