Back to Nature (Published on - May 11, 2005)
The ancient anhinga
Photo by Rick Tremmel
The ancient anhinga takes time to dry its wings in the warmth of a spring day.
This week’s column is purely informative addressing one of the many questions we’re asked concerning anhingas. One of the most common mistakes casual birdwatchers in Florida make is confusing anhingas with cormorants.

Often heard is, “Oh yeah, anhingas, they’re everywhere. I’ve seen ’em on the bridges when I drive to work.”

Most likely the bird they’re observing is but the double-crested cormorant, not the anhinga. These two species of birds are often mistaken for one another.

Similar species, anhingas and cormorants are prehistoric. These adaptable birds choose a variety of habitats from varying ecosystems always with water nearby. Their diets include a wide variety of fish, snakes, immature alligators, frogs, crayfish, salamanders, eels, mollusks, crabs, shrimp and plant material. The anhinga’s and cormorant's feathers lack oil for waterproofing, which enables them to swim underwater, propelled by their webbed feet but as a result these birds can often be seen preening their feathers and spreading their soaked wings to air dry while sunning on rocks and overhanging tree branches.

In Florida you may often observe anhingas near willow outcroppings where they build platform nests in trees or reuse a heron or egret nest. Although anhingas usually nest in groups within mixed colonies, they also may be found nesting as isolated pairs. The nest is built mostly by the female with nesting material, such as sticks, Spanish moss and other plant material being brought to the female by the male. When the anhinga is in breading plumage you may be able to notice a blue eye-ring. The pale blues to white eggs (usually two to five) are incubated by both parents within 25 to 29 days.

Anhingas are graceful flyers and can be seen soaring hawk-like overhead. They swim with just head and neck above surface giving them the name of “snake-bird.” The anhinga has a slender, pointed, yellow bill, long snake-like neck and long tail that is edged in off-white. Unlike the all black cormorant the feathers on the male anhinga’s back are like slivers of silvery-white cascading from the inner wings.

Its length: 28 inches; Wingspan: 47 inches.

The female’s neck feathers and breast are soft, buffy brown where she is often seen drying her wings while perched on a branch near water.

While journeying through Florida’s backwaters, cypress swamps, marshes, mangroves, rivers and wooded ponds keep an eye out for the ancient anhinga … always beautiful … always at home back to nature.

Karen can be reached at

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