Bird Watcher's General Store

The Puerto Rican Tody - 08/10/12


Dear Bird Folks,

I’m a casual stamp collector and the other day I received the commemorative “Flags of Our Nation” stamp of Puerto Rico. Most of the stamps portrayed Puerto Rico’s flag, but in the lower right-hand corner sat a tiny red and green bird, which wasn’t identified. I would love to know what kind of bird it is. Do you know?

– Jake, Akron, OH

Oh, come on, Jake,

If you want me to identify your bird you have to do better than saying that it’s red and green and sits in the lower right-hand corner of a postage stamp. Would it have killed you to send me the stamp, or at least attach a picture of it? Do you know what this means? It means I have to go to the local post office and blow 44¢ to buy this particular stamp so I can see it for myself. Spending 44¢ isn’t a big deal for a high roller like me, but the real problem is the post office. Do you know what Cape Cod post offices are like this time of year? It’s like Disney World on spring break. There are lines of vacationers who are either mailing postcards of sunsets or lobsters or they’re sending boxes of saltwater taffy to their relatives in Akron. Can you imagine getting a box of saltwater taffy? I don’t know who invented that gooey stuff, but I’ll bet it was a dentist. One piece of taffy and you’re in the market for a new filling. And while getting a new filling isn’t a lot of fun, it’s not nearly as bad as going to a Cape Cod post office during the summer.

This must be my lucky day. When I got to the post office I found a letter in my mailbox, and believe it or not, it had the very stamp you are asking about. So I didn’t have to wait in the dreaded line and spend the 44¢ after all. Sweet! I can totally see why you wanted to know about the bird on the stamp. It’s super cute. The bird in question is a “Puerto Rican Tody.” Yes, the bird is called a “tody.” And in case you are wondering, it is pronounced “toad-ee.” It’s not pronounced “toddy,” “today” or Toto, and the birds are not related to Totie Fields. Why are they called todies, you ask? Blame the French. Todies are tiny birds and their name appears to come from the French word todier, which is derived from the Latin, todus, meaning “small bird.” So toad-ee comes from the French. How ironic.

There are five different species of todies in the world and they all can be found living on a handful of islands in the Caribbean. However, there is only one island where the Puerto Rican Tody lives. Wanna guess which island that is? What do todies look like? Superficially (at least to me), todies resemble chubby hummingbirds. They have three-inch long bodies, green backs and bright, red throats. But todies don’t have sharp, skinny beaks like hummers do. A Tody’s beak is long, broad and flat and looks like (at least to me) a very small clothespin. The bird spends most of its day sitting on tree branches waiting for insects to fly by. Once something juicy is spotted the bird will zip out and grab the bug out of the air with its clothespin-looking beak. And while plucking insects out of the air is impressive, the tody’s beak is used for something even more interesting than bug collecting…and hanging clothes. This little hummingbird-ish creature uses its beak to dig holes in dirt. How about that?

How many birds do you know that dig holes in the ground? Well, I know of one bird that does and it lives near just about everyone who is reading this column. Care to guess what it is? The large, noisy and feisty Belted Kingfisher digs a nesting burrow into the sides of cliffs or riverbanks, and so do todies. It would seem (at least to me) that such a diminutive bird would want to lay its eggs in a soft, fluffy nest, hidden in a flowering tree or bush. Nope. With the help of their beaks, Todies dig tunnels into muddy banks. The tunnel may be nearly two feet long, with a nesting chamber at the end. Two to four small eggs are laid in this chamber and both adults take turns incubating. Once hatched out, young todies are fed insects at a ridiculously high rate. Adults feed each baby as many as 140 times a day. (Eating 140 times a day? That’s like being on a cruise ship.) With such an intense feeding schedule the harried parents look for help and sometimes they receive it from other todies. Non-breeding todies have been known to crawl down the tunnel and help with the feeding chores. This is yet another example of Socialism taking over the bird world.

The Puerto Rican Tody has one other strange trait and it has to do with its body temperature. Most small birds have a body temperature of around 104°, but the super cool Puerto Rican Todies keep their bodies at a very human-ish 98°. During long periods of rain, when they need to conserve energy, these little birds can drop their temp to as low as 57° and still function normally. (I don’t know how researchers are able take the temperature of a three-inch bird and I’m not sure I want to know.)

Enjoy your stamps, Jake. It’s about time they put more birds on postage stamps. You would think they would do it more often, particularly on airmail stamps. (Get it?) I’m also glad that the tody caught your eye. It’s an interesting bird, especially since it can lower it’s own body temperature by forty degrees. I wish I could do that. It would make me feel a lot cooler, particularly in the summer, when I’m waiting in line at the post office.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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