Sunday 15 April 2012

The Dino's Toes

Image: marttj via Flickr
It doesn't matter how pretty a bird is. how vibrant the colours, how flowing the feathers, how sweet the song. If you take a look at their feet you will see scales and claws.

Some, like this Red Tailed Hawk, have particularly clawsome claws. These are the talons of the bird of prey, the chief weaponry of eagles, hawks, buzzards and falcons.

The Red Tailed Hawk comes from North America and is fairly small as raptors go, reaching little more than 50 cm (20 in) long with a wingspan two or three times that.

But those evil talons! They don't have to be big to hurt! They curve with a cruel grace from powerful toes. Four toes, like most birds, with three pointing forward and one back.

It all allows them to pounce on prey with terrible speed and power, sometimes killing outright through shock and broken bones. Then, they can pick the prize right up and fly off to a quiet spot to eat, where they'll use those feet to hold down the body while they tear strips off using the beak.

These are very strong tootsies!

So, along with all that other dinosaur stuff like feathers and wishbones let's go looking for dinosaur feet! After all, therapod is Greek for "beast feet".

Image: David Blank
Indian Peafowl
Ahhh! The lovely Peacock. Such is the name of a male Peafowl. The females are Peahens and their young are Peachicks. I don't know what the deal is with peas. At least it's not flesh, right? I mean, this is surely the complete opposite of those terrible raptors, isn't it?

You may be forgiven for thinking so when the male distracts you with his astonishing plumage. But this one isn't doing that. This one is displaying his reptilian leg.

The truth is, Peacocks like a bit of meat with their berries and grain. They do actually kill and eat rodents, lizards and snakes. This actually surprised me, they just don't look the type. They don't look like they'd get themselves into brawls either, but they do. And, like the males of many other pheasants, they come armed.

Protruding from the leg, just above the foot, is his spur. It's a horny, spiked growth for use in fights. The same kind of thing so many cockerels have. Make no mistake, this Peacock is one mean customer. It's good he's so nice to look at. That way we won't turn our back on him.

Image: Wikimedia
Blue-footed Booby
Err... it's certainly blue footed, anyway. Actually Booby comes from the Spanish for "stupid", because these are seabirds who don't look too clever when they're trying to stroll across land. I'm no fashion expert... are blue suede shoes "in"? How clever is their sense of style? I have no idea!

In actual fact these amazingly vibrant feet are similar to the Peacock's tail. In males, they're really bright when they are well fed and in good condition, but they get duller when he's not having such a great time. It means that females, who have almost equally blue feet, can select her mate with confidence.

This is why males have to dance for their lady, raising his head and stamping his feet to show off his health and vigorously full belly.

If it works, they'll nest on various islands in the Pacific. Flying up before diving into the sea, they'll swim around with their webbed feet to pluck fish from the ocean. You can even see that their 4th toe has moved from behind the foot to the side to provide yet more webbing.

Image: TexasEagle via Flickr
American Coot
Clearly, Coots have a completely different sense of style. These are more like comfortable sports shoes. You can practically see the Nike tick! I just hope they're not going to job interviews in those things.

We've seen Coots before, pointed at their balding head and gawped at their chicks. Here we see their astonishing and somewhat ridiculous feet. They have long, strong toes and the three front ones are lobed. This gives them all they need for their multifaceted lifestyle. They can swim even without the webbed feet of a duck and they can also walk with confidence across mud, uneven land and vegetation.

Good footwear is a rambler's best friend.

Image BorisWorkshop via Flickr
Pheasant-tailed Jacana
Whoa! Did I say the Coot had long toes? THESE are long toes! What's that noise? Is that Freddy Krueger crying?

These magnificent tootsies belong to the Jacana, a family of wading birds who prefer to walk atop floating water lilies and other vegetation. Those spectacular feet spread their weight so they don't immediately sink. The back toe is not as long as the other three, but you can see how they have an extra specially long claw to compensate.

This particular species comes from India and Southeast Asia, feasting on insects and such. That's when they're being watched, anyway. I could easily imagine them using those skeletal limbs to pluck out the still beating hearts of mortals.

Seriously, it's lucky the rest of this bird looks so much like a bird. The Aye-aye got a lot of trouble for having just one horrible digit on each hand. This one is getting away with eight terror toes!

Image: Wikipedia
Red-legged Seriema
Ouch! I hate it when I stub my toe, too. Or is it the terrible claw of Deinonychus?

Actually it's the terrible claw of a South American predator called the Red-legged Seriema. They're fast, long legged birds who reach up to 90 cm (35 in) tall. They can fly when they want to but are predominantly ground dwelling, which is probably why their fourth toe is so small and apparently useless. It's also why they keep to open areas where there aren't too many trees to get in the way of their activities. Their horrifically brutal activities.

Seriemas prey on all sorts of insects, snakes, lizards, frogs and rodents. If their victim refuses to die, they'll pick it up and smash it against rocks. Sick. They'll even do it to plastic ones! Just use your imagination and the true horror will fall upon you and reduce you to tears.

But what of the claw? Well, if prey is too big to be swallowed whole it will have to be torn to bits. Remember how the birds of prey held food down with their feet and tore it up with their beak? Seriemas don't have such powerful feet, so they hold it down with their beak and tear it up with that special claw. Keeping it above the ground like that ensures it remains sharp and deadly.

Image: Wikipedia
Upland Moa
What on earth has happened here? This is some significant foot trouble. A lot worse than a stubbed toe. This needs more than a doctor. This needs Saint Servatus, Patron Saint of foot problems!

This rude extremity is the foot of an Upland Moa, the last surviving species which went extinct around 1500. Like other Moas they were a large, flightless bird from New Zealand. This particular species lived on the South Island and reached some 1.3 metres (4.3 feet) in height.

Their feet look utterly fearsome! Robust toes and huge claws. They also had feathers right down to their ankles, which perhaps kept them warm since they could live pretty high up mountains.

Despite being herbivores, they must have been extremely impressive creatures. It's amazing that we have these strange, mummified remains around. If only feet could talk. The stories they would tell...

Image: Wikipedia
Holy moley! We're gonna need the big guns for this one! That's right, a whole other Patron Saint of foot problems -  Saint Peter the Apostle himself!

This is a truly ridiculous foot! The Ostrich seems to have lost two and a half toes somewhere along the way. All that's left is one giant toe with a huge claw and one small one with no claw. This isn't at all what you'd expect from the biggest bird in the world!

And yet we all know that this 2.75 metre (9 ft) tall inhabitant of the African savannah is quite nifty on its gigantic toe. Ostriches are the fastest animals on two legs, attaining a top speed of 70 km/h (43 mph). And if any predators manage to gain on them the Ostrich can turn around and reveal another use of that mega-toe. A well placed kick from an Ostrich is capable of killing pretty much any predator in Africa!

All this from a tiny-headed herbivore who eats only the occasional grasshopper! It seems that toes just get in the way of good running. I think horses would agree!

Image: Wikipedia
Wait! Isn't that a... a.... DINOSAUR!

That depends on how you take your word "dinosaur". If you reckon your dog is a kind of mammal, related to lots of other species of mammal, some living, some extinct then yes; this Emu could well be a kind of dinosaur, related to lots of other species of dinosaur, some living, some extinct. The same can be said of all birds. But not so many birds showcase dinosaur feet like this one!

The Emu is the second tallest bird in the world and the biggest in its range across Australia. They stand 2 metres (6.6 ft) tall and can stride 2.75 metres (9 ft) with each footstep. Those legs are incredibly powerful as well as long. An angry Emu is part comical, part intimidating, but all danger. It's a like that bit at the end of (the true) Karate Kid, except that guy remained alive after getting kicked in the head.

Another weird thing about Emus is they have tiny wings with a claw on the end. Seriously, these guys want to go back to the good old days!

You whipper snappers don't even know you're born!


ElBandito said...

Love the Freddy Krueger skit!
Man, this takes me back to when we used to care for abandoned baby ducks, and yeah, they were a bit of a handful but we certainly learned how different they are from the disney cartoons. When they double in size in under a week, their feet start shedding skin like snakes (except, since they run around so much, they do get it off alot more quicker). They're also very 'no touchy' about being held, so if you do lift one up, they will immediately raise their feet til it's against your hands and drag their claws on your skin til you let go.

Still, jeez, Peacocks being omnivorous? Damn! You learn something new everyday. Also, since Emus got talons on their wings, interestingly even the South American Hoatzin had the same! Apparently it's more pronounced with the little Hoatzin chicks. They'd use those claws to climb back to their nest whenever they fall (pretty handy, if your parents build a nest over a lake fulla piranhas).

Joseph JG said...

Shedding skin, wow! That didn't even occur to me!

I remember walking along a canal, getting past a load of geese and one of them looked up at me and started hissing. Let alone all these seabirds who use their beak and aim for the eyes! You just never know what kind of pain these things can inflict when they want to!

autopsyjude said...

ahaha oh man that nike comment cracked me up. its so true though! they should use it for inspiration for their next shoe. ahah

also, cassowarys have crazy feet that kill people.

Joseph JG said...

Those Coots are nuts! :)

And yeh, I have to feature the Cassowary, somehow. Those ratites are all really interesting.

TexWisGirl said...

loved this post! obviously birds are near and dear to my heart - and drawing them, i'm always fascinated by their craggy, scaly toes. :)

loved the spikes on that jakana!

Joseph JG said...

Glad you enjoyed it! With your drawings I'm sure you have a lot of experience with that strange change of texture. It's pretty odd that you go from fluffy feathers to scales so abruptly. You'd almost think they were two different animals! In fact, that's probably just the kind of myths we would have if birds were found only on some distant island.

Crunchy said...

I love bird feet. If ever there was a clear sign that they're little friggin dinosaurs.

Let me tell you a story about Red-Tailed Hawks.

Back in High School, we had an environmental science teacher who would take his class out into the nearby woods and teach them to identify raptors. Usually just turkey vultures, sometimes the occasional osprey or falcon, and sometimes we'd catch a glimpse of a gorgeous, hunting Red-Tailed Hawk. There was a nest of them nearby, and every year they returned to the same part of the forest, maybe even the same tree.

But the school, being a school, was more interested in athletics than rare wildlife. Every year they'd propose clear-cutting that section of woodlands to build yet another football field. That would be our sixth, for a school of about 1,500 students. And every year, this same teacher would rally his students and other wildlife lovers and block the motion, every single year.

Until he died. As a memorial to his years of dedication and inspiration, the school cut down the forest that same year.

The hawk never came back. I guess he wasn't a big fan of football.

Joseph JG said...

Oh, jeez!
That's really tragic. Having woods and raptors near your school must've been amazing, it's terrible when people don't appreciate such things.

I think Hitchcock had the right idea. So long as The Birds know I'm on their side.

Crunchy said...

Yeah, people don't pay these beautiful animals their proper respect (which is very unwise, given how pointy a raptor is in spots).

My brother's an environmental biologist and spent a few years interning at a raptor rehabilitation center. He got to give massages to hawks (wearing very thick gloves, of course). He told me about an owl that had been kept in a cage so long its wing joints had atrophied and it would never be able to fly again. It had to spend the rest of its life at the center because it could no longer hunt.

Closest I've ever come is handling the occasional parrot. Not quite the same as a hawk, but I still have my scars. :)

Joseph JG said...

Massages to hawks! Haha! I have never imagined such a thing!

Atrophied wings has never occurred to me either. I guess "use it or lose it" is true for all of us.

And yes, even parrots have their claws. Not to mention that nut-cracking beak. That's the other thing about birds, that gnarled thing sticking out their face!

Crunchy said...

The claws aren't so bad, but that beak, well... Let's just say that they figured out it works on more than just nuts.

Joseph JG said...

I'm sure! I've heard that some take time to learn how to not inflict pain whenever they interact with a finger.

Sort of like those snakes who never learn the difference between your soft, yielding neck and a mighty tree branch.