Anhinga – the ‘snake’ which is really a bird

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An anhinga, commonly known as a snake, perched on the branch of a tree at Tobago Plantation, Lowlands, Tobago. -David Reid

Those who have made visits to the Caroni Bird Sanctuary may have seen animals they did not know could be found in TT and the Snakebird is one of them.

It is called the bird-snake because of its physique: a long neck that makes the bird look like a snake, especially when only its neck and head are visible.

Its scientific name is anhinga, one of two species in the family Anhingidae – the other is the oriental darter found only in Asia and Southeast Asia.

In Trinidad, anhingas can be found along the Caroni River but are also seen at the Cunupia River. They are also found in the lowlands, in Tobago.

An anhinga, also called the snake-bird, dries its wings perched on a mangrove tree after diving for prey in the Cunupia River, Felicity. – Photo courtesy Vienne Tirbanie

Biochemist Vienna Tirbanie is the founder of Ecosystem Approach Ltd in Felicity, central Trinidad, and takes people on river tours.

She said she has been lucky enough to see the anhingas at least five times as they are a bit difficult to spot, although she spends most of her days on the Cunupia River. Tirbanie hopes to increase the bird population she says is depleted, and also educate people about the importance of preserving the ecosystem.

While on tour with Newsday Kids last month, three anhinga birds were spotted; two were seen hunting for their food in the sea and another was perched on a branch with its wings out to dry. These birds usually swim with their heads above sea water until they are ready to hunt. They use their long, thin beaks like a spear, dive into the sea and stab fish. They feed mainly on small or medium-sized fish or crustaceans such as small crabs, shrimps or barnacles.

Tirbanie said anhingas have dense bones that allow them to slowly submerge and capture prey, but because their feathers are not waterproof, they are seen in trees where there is the most sunlight. Although anhingas can be mistaken for a snake, she said, “they can be found year-round in wetlands, mangroves, coastal lagoons, lakes and some freshwater habitats.”

A study conducted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University found that in the United States, these birds can live up to 12 years. Tirbanie said that since they are a monogamous species (having only one mate), they form strong pair bonds for life.

She then explained their breeding habits.

“The breeding season usually occurs when there is an abundance of food, whether it is triggered by wet or dry seasons, or has found the ideal conditions for nesting.”

She said it’s worth noting that they reuse their nests on the tree they settled on.

Tirbanie said these birds are important because they are responsible for key functions in the food chain and nutrient cycles. Since they belong to the category of wetland birds, they possess the quality to determine the conditions of the ecosystem in which they live or plan to feed.

She said: “This includes that they are good indicators of potential outbreaks.”

When visiting the Caroni Bird Sanctuary or with Ecosystem Approach Ltd, or when visiting Tobago, watch out for a snake-bird – just make sure it is a bird!

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