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Anita’s Blog – Artistry of Nature

Groove-billed Ani. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Art follows life or does life follow art? Whichever you chose to believe, you’re not alone – it’s an age-old controversy – or perhaps it’s an ageless debate. As a Texas Master Naturalist who is rarely distanced from a camera of some sort, nature (life) inspires artistic expression for me.

Many times, a photo will remind me of a song, poem or quote and a story starts in my head.

Such was the case with a new bird that posed on a mesquite branch one afternoon. When I uploaded it onto my computer screen, the eerie lighting lent itself to thoughts of Sir Bulwer-Lytton’s “. . . a dark and stormy night.” Sadly, no storms have been forthcoming.

On the ground, beneath the branch, four or five more of some scruffy-looking black birds were playing “Ring around the Rosie” at the Turk’s cap that has colonized around the base of a big mesquite tree.

Foraging for prey. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

If you follow this column, you may recall that the mesquite outside our kitchen sink window has a thick branch that parallels the ground at head-height. I put sunflower seeds on the branch every morning for the resident doves, green jays, cardinals and titmice.

I usually photograph birds through the kitchen window, but this new group of birds was special, and they were hanging around, so I slipped out of the house with the camera. At first, I thought they were juvenile grackles with scraggly tails, which was unusual because the grackles don’t frequent the mesquites close to the house.

For a Kansas girl, missing her crows, it was pretty exciting. I was delighted to see the big black birds, although, in my heart, I knew they weren’t crows nor Poe’s ravens “. . . tapping, tapping at my chamber door.” I soon came to my senses and with anticipation, hoping, but thinking, surely not a groove-billed ani – and yes! They were! A bird I’d not seen in our yard since fall of 2013, when a handful in a mesquite tree three feet above my head watched me pull weeds. They’d tired of that activity, flew off and that was that – until last week. I managed to finally count six, when they were all perched in the tree fairly close together.

During the past few weeks, I’ve noticed an increase in the number and variety of birds coming to the mesquite tree outside my kitchen window – not for the seeds, but to hawk bugs. I also noticed the birds appeared stressed – and that could be my imagination, but it dawned on me that they were used to water being nearby. Sadly, our resaca has dried up with the drought, heat and wind.

To help out the birds, I bought a couple of birdbaths to put out in the long yard between the house and the road and moved the shallow insect-water-bowl from the courtyard to below the birdfeeder mesquite – but left its St. Francis statue in the courtyard next to the fishpond.

The insect watering hole bowl, designed to sit on the ground, is shallow and requires three or four refills a day but it’s certainly appreciated and tremendously entertaining.

Groove-billed Ani. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

New-to-the-yard birds have shown up this summer. I’ve photographed a dickcissel, painted bunting and a blue grosbeak, all of which were possibly just passing through. Ones that seem to be sticking around are clay-colored thrush, a common yellowthroat and now the groove-billed ani.

Groove-billed ani are south Texas residents. Their range is San Antonio and Houston and south to coastal Ecuador and Peru. They only retreat from the northern limits in Texas and northern Mexico during winter and then they only move short distances south, according to That rather begs the question, where have they been these past 10 years?

The groove-billed ani are communal birds in the Cuckoo family of tropical America. Interestingly, roadrunners and yellow-billed cuckoos are also in the Cuckoo family. Our summer yellow-billed cuckoo, also known as a rain crow, returned but has been quiet, probably because there is no rain to portend.

The illusive Rain Crow, Yellow-billed Cuckoo. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The groove-billed ani is 13 inches long with a wingspan of 16-18 inches, strikingly black with a tail nearly as long as its body. It has a huge bill with lengthwise groves running the length of the upper mandible.

Groove-billed Ani. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

They have a mixed diet of insects, seeds and fruits. They forage on the ground in close and noisy flocks – hence the “Ring around the Rosie” activity.

All About Birds calls them “a loose-limbed, disheveled-looking bird,” which is kinder than what I first thought: shaggy grackles shedding their tail; calls them “bizarre, coal-black cuckoos with long floppy tails.” I see them as beautiful.

Descriptions vary, but there’s a lot of agreement about the birds being entertaining. A couple of friends have related tales about how curious the species is and how the birds will watch from the tree branches and eventually hop down close to them as they work in the yard. Groups will often fly one at a time from one spot to the next.

Sharing secrets at the end of the day. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Groove-billed Ani companions. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

They feed mostly on large insects like grasshoppers – that’s a good thing – some of the grasshoppers that came to my moth sheet during moth week were quite huge; ani also consume large beetles, moths and caterpillars, and also spiders, snails and often small lizards. They will forage mostly by hopping and running, staying low in shrubs and grasses on the ground or foraging in bushes, especially to eat berries. I’ve watched them jump straight up, like a spooked cat.

They have been described as gregarious and not particularly graceful, crashing around awkwardly in small groups, hunting food. They also will seek out cattle because cows flush out prey as they move through pastures. The birds also eat parasites, such as ticks, from the livestock.

They are beautiful birds, photogenic and display a multitude of persona.

Groove-billed Ani; one of many personas of a beautiful black bird. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

To me, there’s no question that art follows life. There are many schools of thought about the art/life/form/reality continuum as well as a lot of quotes. For all those who have an inner artist in your soul, you might find these more than 100 quotes about art fun and perhaps inspiring:

There’s a companion site about writing, for those thinking about writing for the autumn Chachalaca – deadline August 20th.



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