Written By: Melissa Mayntz
The following is from LIFE’s beautifully illustrated new special edition, Birds: The World’s Most Remarkable Creatures, available at newsstands and online:
The first bird I fell in love with—my “spark bird”—was soaring in the northeastern Florida sky one May many years ago, its pointed wings spread gracefully and its deeply forked tail gently twisting to guide its curving flight. The black-and-white coloration was distinctive, and I rushed to a local used bookstore for what would become the first of many field guides on my shelves. A few flips of the pages, and I knew I’d seen a swallow-tailed kite, an elegant raptor that is a summer visitor to Florida and the southeastern United States.
Tens of millions of birders have had similar encounters with their own spark bird. In the United States alone, more than 45 million people are bird watchers. Roughly $4 billion is spent annually on birdseed and foods such as suet, nuts, and nectar, while another $2 billion is spent on binoculars, spotting scopes, and other equipment. Birds are the focus of conservation programs and citizen science projects such as the Great Backyard Bird Count; art projects like the Audubon Mural Project in New York City, which highlights 314 bird species; and movies like Happy Feet (about penguins) and The Big Year (about a birding competition).
That so many people love birds may be partly because there’s a bird for everyone. The more than 10,000 known bird species come in an extraordinary variety, and they can be found—almost literally—everywhere.
Birds thrive in all habitats, from fierce roadrunners in rocky deserts to colorful toucans in tropical jungles. You don’t need to live next to a wildlife refuge or nature preserve to enjoy a multitude of bird species—even the busiest cities are home to swallows and sparrows, hawks nesting on skyscrapers, ducks in park ponds, and hummingbirds in flower beds. Taking a trip to the beach? Watch for sandpipers running from the waves, pelicans floating on the water, and gulls flocking on the dunes. In rural areas, there might be quail, magpies, and wild turkeys at the edges of farm fields, while suburban yards can be flush with thrushes, warblers, and buntings. Wherever we are, birds provide us with an active, living connection to nature.
Birds’ often vibrant colors can distinguish a species in a beautiful way. The brilliant red of the northern cardinal stands out against winter snows, while the bright hue of the blue jay is a bold splash of color among the leaves. Birds come in every color, and some—like the painted bunting, with his blue head, lime-green back, and rich red chest—are a rainbow all by themselves.
The varied hues have a purpose. Brighter colors can help birds attract stronger mates—as a general but not ironclad rule, the more colorful of the species are the males, with female birds often more muted, more demure, in their coloring. In other cases, a mottled pattern provides camouflage to protect nesting birds, and some birds, such as the northern pygmy owl, even have false “eyespots” on the back of their head to fool potential predators.
The sight of birds in flight suggests a sense of freedom—from the awesome dive of a peregrine falcon to the swooping curves of a barn swallow, or even the quick flitting of a house wren. The long-distance migrations of birds, flying hundreds or even thousands of miles between their summer and winter habitats, highlight their endurance and perseverance, as well as a kind of navigational intelligence. Birds rely on landmarks and stars to guide their journeys.
There’s a variety in how they fly as well. Consider the hours-long flights of albatrosses out at sea as they soar on air currents; the frantic, adrenaline-inducing flights of pheasants scattering from predators; or the flittering flights of foraging warblers navigating the high trees without hitting a single branch.
And of course, there’s their songs. Chirps, whistles, coos, and warbles are as familiar as the somewhat less melodious screeches, squawks, hoots, and quacks. Some birds, such as mockingbirds, thrashers, and catbirds, are outstanding mimics and imitate not only other birds but also other animals—as well as car alarms and ring tones.
Birds sing to attract mates and to defend their territory, with more complex songs indicating better health and greater experience to lure the very best mates or defend larger territories. Other songs and calls communicate information about food or predators, and while in flight, flocks of birds often call to one another to maintain proper spacing with their airborne neighbors.
The reasons why humans appreciate birds are almost as diverse as birds themselves. The bill of a roseate spoonbill, the hovering of a hummingbird, the gleam of an eagle’s eye, the trill of a nightingale in the gloaming: Maybe one of those birds is your spark bird, long since catalogued or quite literally just up around the bend.
Here is a selection of photos from LIFE’s new special edition exploring the beauty of birds, Birds: The World’s Most Remarkable Creatures.