Associated Smithsonian Expert: Gary R. Graves, Ph.D.

Dr. Gary Graves had an early childhood fascination with birds that eventually led him to his role as curator of birds at the National Museum of Natural History.

Photo by Don Hurlburt, Smithsonian Institution

Dr. Gary Graves is a research zoologist and curator of birds at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History where his research focuses on the ecology, biogeography, and evolution of birds. His early childhood fascination with birds led to graduate studies at Louisiana State University and Florida State University: "I am unapologetically curious about natural history and the ways that natural history observations catalyze important ecological and evolutionary discoveries." His dissertation work focused on speciation of birds in the Andes Mountains of Peru. He has also conducted fieldwork in Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Colombia, Polynesia, Canada, and in more than half the states in the USA. His current research efforts are split between the analysis of complex data sets based on the collective resources of the World's great museums and conducting field research in Jamaica, the great forests of the eastern USA, and in the Sonoran Desert.

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This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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Swan Goose (Anser cygnoides) feeding on land
Courtesy of 4028mdk09, via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA


About Waterfowl (Order Anseriformes): Feeding

Waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans) get their name from their tendency to stay in or near water. Their feathers are densely packed and waterproof, streamlining and insulating them for aquatic life. Nearly all waterfowl feed in the water, on aquatic grasses, seeds, roots, insects, mollusks, crustaceans, and/or small fish. Their webbed front toes help them paddle around looking for food. Typically, waterfowl have long necks and flattened bills with spiny tongues to grasp slippery food. Different species of waterfowl have different feeding techniques related to their diets. Mollusk-eaters use strong bills to yank mollusks off rocks, while fish-eaters have long, pointy bills for catching fish. In dabbling ducks, water is sucked in at the front of the bill, then pushed out the sides by a fleshy tongue. Hard, filter plates (lamellae) along the sides of the bill trap food like a sieve. Waterfowl often feed in flocks, making chattering sounds.

Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) taking off
Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, public domain


About Birds (Class Aves): Locomotion

Most birds fly. Wing feathers are spread out to increase surface area and generate lift like airplane wings. Soft contour feathers overlap rigid flight feathers to make a streamlined but firm surface. Stiff tail feathers are used to steer and break. Unlike an airplane, a bird flaps its wings to generate thrust for forward movement. A typical bird body is adapted for flight. Hand bones are fused together to support the flight feathers. A downward extension from the breastbone provides a place to anchor large chest muscles that power the wings. Bird bodies are surprisingly light, thanks to thin-walled, hollow bones. For strength, the hollow channels are filled with bony struts like the scaffolding of a building. Many birds also spend a lot of time standing and walking. Their pelvic girdle is strong, supporting the bird's weight on just two hind limbs.