The Anhingas, Darters, or Snake-birds are readily distinguished from the other members of the group and more particularly from their nearest of kin, the Cormorants, by their elongated bodies, excessively long, slender, snake-like necks, very small, narrow heads, and the slender, nearly straight, and very sharp-pointed bills. The bill is not hooked at the tip although somewhat serrated. The neck has ” a bend at the 8th or 9th vertebra, and is provided with a peculiar mechanism which enables the bird, by suddenly straightening the neck, to transfix with its bill the fishes it captures.” The wings are quite long and pointed, while the rounded tail is composed of twelve stiff, somewhat wedge-shaped feathers, the broadest end outward, in addition to which the middle pair are transversely ribbed. The body is nearly uniformly clothed with small, rather soft, contour feathers, and very delicate down feathers. With the exception of the lateral spaces of the trunk, only a narrow inferior bare space is to be found. In length these birds range from about twenty-eight to thirty-six inches.
Although only four species of Darters are known, they enjoy a wide distribution in the tropics or warmer regions of both hemispheres, one species, the Snake-bird, or Water Turkey (A. anhinga), being found over the whole of tropical and subtropical America, ranging north to South Carolina, southern Illinois, and western Mexico. It is one of the largest species, being from thirty-two to thirty-six inches in length. The male has the upper parts glossy greenish black, the wing-coverts spotted with silver-gray; the lower parts are deep black. The female and young are more grayish, while the male is provided with a sort of mane of elongated hair-like feathers. The African Darter (A. Levaillantii) is found in North Syria, northern Africa, and Madagascar. It is dark brown or reddish brown above, with a white band extending from the eye for about five inches down each side of the neck. The Indian or Black-bellied Darter (A. melanogaster) is very widely distributed, ranging from Mesopotamia to India, Ceylon, and the Indo-Chinese countries, and through the Malay Peninsula to Borneo and the Philippines; it is quite similar to the last. The Southern Darter (A. Novae-hollandiae), found in Australia, New Guinea, and New Zealand, is glossy black above and has the white stripes on the sides of the neck much as in the Indian Darter.
I select the following account of the habits from Dr. Brewer’s history of the American species, the habits of the others being similar. “It lives principally upon fish, which it seizes by rapidly darting upon them with its sharply pointed and slightly toothed beak. In this movement its neck, which is very long, is thrust forward with the force of a spring, aided by the muscles, that are large and well developed in the lower and anterior portion of the neck. When fishing, the Anhinga stands with only its head and neck above the water; when it makes a plunge it remains a long while beneath the surface; and when it rises again, the long and undulating neck has somewhat the appearance of a serpent.
“It is more or less gregarious by habit, the number seen together varying with the attractions of the locality, and ranging from eight or ten to thirty, or even several hundred. In the breeding season it moves in pairs. It is a diurnal bird, and if unmolested, returns each night to the same roosting place. When asleep it is said to stand with its body almost erect.
” This is said to be the very first among fresh-water divers, disappearing beneath the surface with the quickness of thought, moving scarcely a ripple on the spot, and reappearing, perhaps with its head only above the water for a moment, at a place several hundred yards distant. If hit, and only wounded, this bird readily baffles all the endeavors of the sportsman to secure it. When swimming, and unmolested, it is buoyant, and moves with its whole body above the water, but when in danger it sinks its body, leaving only the head and neck out of the water, presenting the appearance of a portion of a large snake.”
At times these birds rise to a considerable height in the air, 2000 or more feet, probably, where they soar with ease, remaining in the air for a considerable period of time. They nest somewhat in colonies in swamps, selecting secluded localities where they are not likely to be interrupted. The nest is a rather loosely made structure of sticks, leaves, and moss, and is placed in low bushes over the water; the three to five eggs are bluish, covered with a whitish chalky deposit.