Birds…of a Different Feather

by Anna Boggs, Rural Retreat, VA | Nov 1, 2023 | 0 comments

male Great Frigatebird flying
Male Great Frigatebird. Photo © Guenterguni|

When we hear the word bird, our mind’s eye might see a songbird, a duck, or maybe a parrot—a familiar creature with wings, beak, head, tail, feet, and feathers. But I doubt many of us realize how far God has pushed the boundaries of avian design. Ever heard of a bird that shuts down half its brain to sleep on the wing? What about the bird with a tongue that takes a detour? A bird with a stomach like a cow’s? Prepare, dear reader, to have your ideas about our feathered friends seriously shaken!

First up is the Great Frigatebird—a large seabird and notorious thief that prefers pirating his meals from other seabirds to catching his own. He’s named for a small streamlined ship called a frigate which was commonly used by pirates to overrun slower vessels.

In seeming conflict with his oceanic habitat, he is unable to swim, due to his weak feet and inability to waterproof his feathers. You say a bird that can’t swim wouldn’t survive very long at sea. Think again—though he measures almost 3½ feet (1 m) long and stretches his wings to nearly 8 feet (2.4 m), the adult frigatebird weighs just under 4 pounds (1.8 kg)! His weight-to-wing-area ratio is the lowest of all birds and allows the frigatebird to stay aloft for weeks—sometimes months—on end, soaring to altitudes pushing 13,000 feet (4,000 m). He’ll spend the greater part of his life on the wing, only coming to shore during breeding season.

Finding food on the wing is a no-brainer for the frigatebird; in addition to his skill as an aerial thief, he’s an excellent in-flight fisher. But what about sleeping? He clearly doesn’t spend enough time on land to rest there, so he must catch his zzz’s while soaring over the ocean. Sound like a recipe for disaster? Actually, it’s perfectly safe. The frigatebird is created with the incredible ability to shut down one half of his brain at a time—known as “unihemispheric sleep.” This means one hemisphere can get the rest it needs, while the other remains alert. Impressive, right?

diagram of a woodpecker's tongue
Diagram of a woodpecker’s tongue.

Tack-tack-tack! Everyone knows a woodpecker when they hear one. Woodpeckers are amazing, set apart by their mind-blowing ability to bore holes in hardwood trees with nothing more than their own heads. A woodpecker uses so much force while drilling that he must close his eyelids before each peck to keep his eyeballs from being knocked out! With that kind of power, a woodpecker can make a good-sized hole in record time. When he’s finished drilling, he whips out a “secret weapon” to retrieve insects hiding deep in the tree’s bark—a tongue so long it can’t fit in his beak! In fact, woodpeckers have the longest tongues of any birds. The ’pecker’s tongue begins between the nostrils, where it splits in two. Both sides travel backwards, parallel to each other, over and around the skull to the base of the lower mandible, where they rendezvous and appear as a single tongue. If the woodpecker would happen to bite that tongue, do you suppose he’d get a headache to boot?

Hoatzin. Photo © Kevin Oke|

Our next eccentric aviator has long been an enigma to modern science—a turkey-sized, long-tailed bird from the jungles of South America, called the hoatzin. Scientists have repeatedly failed to classify this creature within a particular family group. It’s been tossed around between cuckoos, turacos, and even doves, with no real headway being made on the “hoatzin problem.” It’s definitely a bird in that it has wings, feathers, and is warm-blooded; but from there it gets downright—well, to say “extraordinary” would be understating the case.

First, the hoatzin’s digestive system is more like a cow’s than that of any bird we know. Its esophagus and crop are considerably larger than those of similarly-sized birds, allowing the hoatzin to employ a process called “foregut fermentation.” This means its food is fermented in the crop before it ever reaches the stomach—accelerating the breakdown of the tough, fibrous plant material this strict vegetarian lives on.

Secondly, the wings of hoatzin chicks are armed with claws for the first 100 days. Scientists consider this a major aspect of the hoatzin enigma; but it makes perfect sense when you learn that the hoatzin’s nest is built over water. If the chick is threatened, it will literally dive for cover. Once the danger has passed, the chick pulls itself out of the water, using its wing-mounted claws like hands to grasp low branches and climb to the nest. Somewhere between fledging and adulthood, the claws disappear.

Darwinists claim that birds evolved from dinosaurs. While the fossil Archaeopteryx is a popular theoretical example of a “transitional form,” the present-day hoatzin possesses all the same features—clawed wings and feathers, a fact which baffles contemporary science.

Where do you think the hoatzin belongs? I don’t know, either; but if you ask me, God specially designed the hoatzin as proof of His divine creation.

Andean Condor. Photo © Dr. John A Horsfall|

South America not only boasts the planet’s most enigmatic bird; it’s also home to the largest raptor. Casting their giant shadows over the unforgiving Andes Mountains, Andean Condors glide effortlessly on wings stretching nearly 11 feet (3.4 m) across. In a world predominated by songbirds, it’s hard to visualize a flier so enormous. A good way to get an idea of their size is to take a tape measure, stretch it to 10 feet (3 m), and imagine it’s a bird.

Elegant and imposing in their glistening jet-black suits and showy white collars, they claim the distinction of being the only New World vultures exhibiting visual differences between the males and females. Females have fearsome red eyes, while males are identified by yellow eyes and a massive comb as unique to each individual as a human fingerprint.

Each morning, Andean Condors can be seen at cliffside roosting sites with their wings “hung out,” warming their muscles in preparation for a long day of gliding. They will wait to take off until the sun has sufficiently warmed the earth, and hot-air thermals rush up the rock face and begin ruffling their feathers. This way, they know the thermals are strong enough to support some 30 pounds (14 kg) of vulture.

When in flight, the condor’s wing tips curve sharply upwards, reducing drag and increasing energy efficiency. Some modern airliners are designed with upturned wing tips for the same reason. Between its use of thermals and its efficient design, the Andean Condor is the undisputed master of South America’s skies.

In taking a deeper look at the unique attributes of these special birds, I do not find evidence of a cosmic explosion of nothingness—only overwhelming proof that the universe is far too wonderful to possibly be the chance result of any accident. Proof that there is a God—a Divine Creator Who delights in using His creative omnipotence to dazzle US, His beloved children, the crowning glory of creation, the most wonderful of all!

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