Like all animals, birds need food and a place to live. Water is full of useful food, as it is home to fish, shellfish, frogs and newts, water insects and snails, water weeds and plankton. River banks, marshes and rocky seashores make great nesting places too. So it is no surprise that many birds have adapted to a watery lifestyle, swimming or wading around and diving or dipping for their food. Out of the 9,000 species (types) of birds, at least 1,000 are at home in the water.
RIVERS AND LAKES
If you visit any river, lake, stream or pond, you will probably see a water bird of some kind there. Ducks, geese and swans, also called waterfowl, are the most common. They swim on their bellies, using their webbed feet to push themselves through the water. They usually dive or reach down into the water to nibble water weeds. They have a thick layer of fat under their skin to keep them warm, and, like most water birds, they have oily outer feathers, so that water runs off them instead of soaking through to their skin. That is why we use the phrase “like water off a duck’s back” to describe something that does not bother you.
Long-legged wading birds do things differently. Instead of sitting right in the water, they paddle on their long, skinny legs, only getting their feet wet. Flamingos stand in shallow water and use their bills to scoop small plants and animals out of the mud. Herons stand at the edge of a pond or river, waiting to grab smaller water animals such as frogs and fish with their long, sharp bills.
Kingfishers and dippers are small water birds that are related to land birds like thrushes and swallows. They live on river banks, and dive under the water quickly to grab small fish, water worms or insects.
SEA AND SHORE
The seashore is a great place to spot birds. Shore birds such as oystercatchers and sandpipers peck along the beach at low tide, hunting for worms, shrimps and shellfish. Many other birds nest on the shore, but fly out to sea to hunt for food like fish and squid. Cormorants nest on rocky ledges and make their nests from seaweed. They dive into the sea to catch fish to take back to their chicks. The albatross, one of the largest seabirds, spends most of its time out at sea, wandering over long distances and not returning to land for months on end. It settles down on the ocean to sleep, and only comes back to the land to lay its eggs and raise its chicks.
Unlike most water birds, penguins cannot fly. So instead of soaring over the water to look for food, they run, slide or jump into the waves and swim underwater to hunt for small sea creatures to eat.
Many water birds have to stick their heads, or sometimes their whole bodies, underwater to find their food. Birds cannot breathe underwater, so they have to hold their breath. Emperor penguins can hold theirs for up to 20 minutes. Ducks and swans stay under for just a few seconds. Some birds, such as gannets (a type of seabird) and kingfishers, spot their prey from the air, then zoom down at high speed to snatch it from the water, staying under for as little time as possible.
Lots of water birds are happy in any kind of water. Roseate spoonbills, a type of wading bird, can live on the seashore, in marshes or estuaries or in freshwater rivers and inland lakes. The common loon can be found on large lakes or out at sea. And some types of gulls are even less fussy. Although they are seabirds, many common gulls and herring gulls have moved to inland cities far from the sea. Instead of fishing, they eat leftover food from bins and rubbish tips.
ON THE MOVE
Many water birds migrate huge distances to spend different parts of the year in different places. Snow geese spend the summer in the Arctic, then fly south to spend the winter in the warmer United States. Arctic terns have the longest migrations of all. They fly from the Antarctic to the Arctic and back every year—a round trip of 40,000 kilometres—so that they can enjoy the summer season in both regions.