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Living Sanibel: Anhinga is one of the most photographed birds statewide

By Staff | Oct 6, 2011

One of the most photographed birds in Florida, the anhinga can be seen at almost any time of the day along canals and drainage ditches, drying its wings. The name anhinga, which comes from the Tupi-speaking natives of the Amazon basin, means “evil spirit of the woods.” Locally it is often referred to as the snakebird because of its ability to swim through the water with only its long, snakelike neck exposed.

When in full breeding plumage, the male anhinga sports a stunning black and white neck, back, and forewings that resemble piano keys. The female has a brown neck and breast. Because of its similar size and feeding habits, the anhinga is easily confused with the cormorant. Unlike the cormorant, however, the anhinga is an excellent flyer and can sometimes be seen soaring with wood storks and vultures high above the peninsula.

The anhinga, a distant relative of the pelican, has evolved a unique style of fishing. Unlike the cormorant and most diving ducks, the anhinga has no natural oils in its feathers. That, coupled with its dense bone structure, allows the anhinga to sink once its feathers become saturated with water. Also unlike the cormorant, the anhinga seldom grasps its prey but instead impales the pinfish or sand trout on its sharply pointed, dagger-like beak which it uses to impale the unfortunate fish. The anhinga carefully flips the minnow off of its beak, eventually working its way around to its mouth where it swallows the minnow whole.

Its unusual perching behavior, with its large wings spread wide open, occurs because the anhinga becomes completely waterlogged after fishing. Sometimes, when startled and still too wet to fly, the anhinga will tumble back into the water creating a loud, unexpected splash.

Although its principal diet is fish, the anhinga has been known to eat baby alligators, water snakes, leeches, and frogs. Monogamous and colonial, it often nests with egrets and herons. Aside from alligators and great horned owls, the anhinga has few natural predators.