Darter, a bird of the order natatores and genus plotus (Linn.). The bill in this genus is longer than the head, straight, and very slender, with sides much compressed to the acute tip, and the lateral margins finely serrated; the nostrils are scarcely visible; the wings are long, the second and third primaries the longest; the tail is long, of 12 feathers, and broad toward the end, which is rounded; the tarsi are short and strong; the toes long, united by a broad web, with short, sharp, and curved claws. Four species are described by Gray: P. anhinga (Linn.), in the southern states of North America; P. melanogaster (Gmel.), in Asia; P. Congensis (Leach), in Africa; and P. Novaz Hollandiae (Gould), in Australia. They are peculiar to warm climates, where they live in society on fresh-water rivers and lakes. The first named species, the anhinga, or snake bird, or black-bellied darter, may be taken as a type of the genus. The bill of this bird is about 3 1/2 in. long, the length to end of tail 36 in., extent of wings 44 in., tail 11 1/2 in., tarsus 1 1/2 in; weight 3 1/4 lbs. The head is small, the neck very long and slender, and the body elongated; at the base of the upper mandible, around the eye, and on the throat, the skin is bare, and at the latter part dilated as in the cormorant.
The plumage of the head, neck, and body is close and silky, with oblong rounded feathers; from near the eye to half down the neck on each side is a series of long, narrow, loose feathers; the scapulars are elongated, pointed, compact, and stiff. The upper mandible is olive, the lower yellow, with greenish tips; around the eye greenish, sac on throat orange, iris bright carmine; the general color of the head, neck, and body, glossy dark green, and of the scapulars, wings, and tail, bluish black; the long neck feathers are purplish white or lilac; at the lower part of the neck behind are numerous oblong small white spots, forming two broad bands as they extend backward; similar rows of white spots are seen on the smaller wing coverts; the first row of small and the secondary coverts are white; the tail is tipped with a band of brownish red, fading into white. In the female, which is smaller, the upper part of the head and the hind neck are dull greenish brown, and the fore part of the neck pale reddish brown with a grayish tinge, extending over the breast and ending abruptly in a reddish chestnut band; otherwise the colors are as in the male, except that the spots are less distinct, and that the fore part of the back has a brownish tint.
In appearance and habits the darter resembles the cormorant, especially in the structure of the feet, wings, and tail; the bill is like that of the heron, as also is the neck, which forms the same sudden curvature between the seventh and eighth vertebrae. According to Audubon, there are no external nostrils in the adult, though small ones are found in the young. This bird is a constant resident in Florida, and the lower parts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia; in spring it goes as far up as North Carolina, breeding along the coast; in these various localities it bears the names of water crow, Grecian lady, water turkey, and cormorant. They arrive in the Carolinas from March to April, and remain till November, preferring rivers, lakes, and lagoons in the interior, in low situations and secluded spots; though sometimes seen near the sea, they are not known to fish in salt water; they do not like rapid streams or clear water, but delight in the slimy and stagnant pools of inaccessible morasses, where a few large and naked trees in the centre afford good stands for taking their prey or observing an enemy.
From the character of the water they prefer, which would prevent their seeing a fish beneath its surface, they do not dive from an eminence or on the wing, but drop silently from the trees into the water, swimming about and diving from the surface like the cormorant. They are excellent swimmers, very light on the water when not afraid, but sinking all but the head and neck on the approach of an enemy; when swimming in this manner, the sinuous motions of the head and neck resemble the movements of a snake, whence the common name of snake bird. After securing a fish, the bird comes to the surface, throws it into the air if not too large, and swallows it whole, head first. Its food consists of various small fishes, crawfish, shrimps, young reptiles, aquatic insects, eggs of frogs, young leeches, etc, and in confinement even boiled maize. The quantity of fish they will consume is enormous; but like other flesh and fish-eating birds, they can remain several days without food. The flesh is tough, oily, and unfit for food, except the small pectorals of the female. They, are gregarious in winter, fishing entirely by day, and fond of returning nightly to the same roosting places, which are always over water; they are not very shy in their favorite haunts, where they are seldom molested.
Their flight is swift, well sustained, and often at an immense height, where they sail about in graceful curves, especially in the love season; on land they walk and run well, much better than the cormorant, holding the tail up, and darting the head about continually, distending the pouch, and uttering rough guttural sounds. As divers they are unsurpassed by fresh-water birds, disappearing with the utmost quickness, and swimming beneath the surface for a long distance by means of the feet, the wings partially spread and the tail expanded. Asleep, they stand with the body nearly erect, the head under the scapulars. In East Florida they breed toward the end of February, in Louisiana in April or May, and in South Carolina in June; Audubon supposes the same birds may breed twice a year in widely separated localities. The nest, made of sticks, is flattened, and is generally in tall water-surrounded cypresses; the eggs are three or four, 2 1/2 in. long, of a light blue color, covered with a whitish chalky substance. The birds attain their full plumage during the first year, and retain it through life. When wounded, the sharp bill proves a formidable weapon of defence.
According to Audubon, the quills and tail feathers, as in the cormorant, have the shaft hollow, even to the tip, with transparent walls of the same nature as the barrel, which last is the same as in other birds.
Black-bellied Darter (Plotus anhinga).