by Whit Gibbons

December 3, 2006

Last week, a colleague jokingly asked me what I knew about motmots, todies, and drongos. My response was, huh? The next day someone asked me what I knew about kites and falcons. At least I had an answer for that question: not much, except they are birds of prey. Then I received a book that gave me the opportunity (metaphorically speaking) to kill way more than two birds with one stone and provided authoritative answers about motmots, todies, drongos, kites, falcons, and thousands more of our feathered friends.

The 520-page book, "Birds of the World" (2006, Johns Hopkins University Press) by Les Beletsky, is a well-structured, thorough coverage of every group of birds on the planet. Each chapter has superb illustrations of selected species and focuses on a basic overview of a major group, such as "Hummingbirds" or "Pigeons and Doves." For example, the hummingbird chapter explains that the more than 300 nectar-eating species are found only in the New World, from elevations of 13,000 feet to sea level. The largest are eight inches long; the smallest weighs "no more than a large paper clip." Included among the 22 illustrations in the chapter are bizarre yet exquisite members of the hummingbird family such as the long-tailed sylph, crimson topaz, and red-billed streamertail.

As for motmots, I can now state categorically that eight of the 10 species of these absolutely gorgeous long-tailed birds occur in Central America. One illustration shows a 15-inch-long turquoise-browed motmot with red, green, and blue coloring and a blue and black tuft at the end of its tail. I agree with the author's assessment that the motmot is "saddled with a ridiculous name." Todies consist of a family of five look-alike species of the West Indies, including Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. These short, fat little birds are described as "emerald green above, with ruby red throats, and whitish underparts tinged with yellow or pink." Clearly a tody would be a great bird to add to your life list.

And a drongo? These almost entirely black birds of Africa, Asia, and Australia are notable for their impressively long forked tails. When perched on a limb, the greater racket-tailed drongo of southern Asia stands two feet high, of which 10 inches is tail. Drongos are noted for their fearlessness, with both parents defending their nests from crows, hawks, and even mammals. Smaller birds often nest close to drongo nests to benefit from the free home security system.

And finally, kites versus falcons? My short answer was correct, though far from complete. Both are indeed raptors, predatory birds of prey, but technically they belong in separate families. Kites are classified with the more than 200 species of hawks and eagles in a family group known as the accipiters. I like the author's description of accipiters: "fierce-looking birds with hooked, pointed bills, and powerful feet with hooked, sharp claws (talons)." Falcons are a smaller group of 61 species that have the same arsenal but generally have more pointed wings, a sleeker appearance, and greater speed. A source of confusion about the two families is that the graceful Mississippi kite of the Southeast is often described as "falcon-shaped," whereas the American kestrel (a falcon) is called a "sparrow hawk" in many areas. Among the best-known of all the raptors is the peregrine falcon, which almost went extinct because of our overuse of the pesticide DDT. However, the species has recovered to a point that their daredevil high dives at speeds of greater than 100 mph to catch pigeons can be seen today in some U.S. cities.

I clearly know a lot more about the 9,800 species and 200 families of birds than I did last week, as can anyone who has a copy of "Birds of the World."

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