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Many of world’s birds are ‘masked’

Photo by Pixabay • A loggerhead shrike sports a black mask that provides dramatic contrast to the bird’s gray head and white breast and throat. Shrikes are also nicknamed “butcher birds” for their habit of impaling prey on thorns or barbed wire fences.

By Bryan Stevens

Who was that masked bird? 

While asking pardon from “The Lone Ranger,” which originated the memorable “Who was that masked man?” question, I thought I’d take a look this week at some of our feather friends known for going about their lives fully masked. After all, masks are all the rage, apparently.

When we look back, perhaps not fondly but inevitably, on the years 2020 and 2021, I’m confident that the one icon of this blip in the arc of history will be the mask. Living in the time of COVID-19 has been a cross to bear for current generations, but remember that our great-grandparents withstood the Spanish flu and our more distant ancestors weathered the plague known as “the black death.” 

Many of them did so by using masks, some more effectively than others, to shield themselves from infection. Even back in the 1300s as the black death, i.e. the bubonic plague, rampaged through Europe, masks were recognized as a means of dealing with a contagion. 

To complete the circle connecting masks and birds, I’ll remind readers that a strange costume arose in the 1300s among “doctors” attempting to combat the pandemic of their time. Plague doctors traveled across Europe, seeking public employment from desperate towns and cities, in an easily recognizable costume that consisted of dark robes and a weird mask with a prominent bird-like beak. The result was a look straight from some fevered nightmare. 

Looking at illustrations of these strange beaked masks and reading about some of the absurdly horrendous “cures” offered by these charlatans, I’m surprised that an anti-bird sentiment didn’t rise up and turn people against some of our fine feathered friends.  Ironically, the masks offered little or no protection from disease. Let’s just say that these were not the quality of some of the better surgical masks available today.

It may surprise people to learn that many birds are “masked.”  For mask-wearing birds, however, it’s not a choice but simply a quirk of their plumage that has given so many of our feather friends a distinctive mask, or in some cases even a complete hood, to complete their appearance. Birds ranging from popular backyard visitors like the cedar waxwing to more unusual avians such as the masked flowerpiercer and the masked fin foot wear masks.

The masked tityra is a medium-sized songbird. It has traditionally been placed in the cotinga or the tyrant flycatcher family, but many experts believe it is better placed in Tityridae. The masked  tityra has been spotted once north of the border, being found in the Bentsen/Rio Grande Valley State Park in February of 1990.

Shrikes are a family with many mask-wearing members. The loggerhead shrike, in addition to wearing a bandit’s mask, even has the unsavory nickname of “butcher bird” due to its gruesome habit of impaling prey on thorns or barbed wire fences. The loggerhead shrike is native to the United States and is the only member of the family found in Northeast Tennessee. The Northern shrike, which is the only other shrike in North America, is also masked.

Some warblers sport masks, including the common yellowthroat and hooded warbler. Well, the latter wears an encompassing black hood, but you get the idea. The Kentucky warbler sports a partial black mask around the eyes. There’s also the masked yellowthroat — the name seems a bit too on point — that maintains separate resident breeding populations in Central and South America. Based on photos, the masked yellowthroat’s mask is even more pronounced than the mask of the common yellowthroat. 

There’s also the masked booby, which is a large seabird in the booby/gannet family, Sulidae. This bird spends most of its time at sea, coming to land to breed and nest. The name “booby” is actually derived from the Spanish word “bobo,” which can be translated to mean “fool” or “clown.” These seabirds are not truly stupid, but the Spanish, seeing them on land and out of their element, only noticed how awkward and clumsy the birds are on land. Some relatives of the masked booby include blue-footed booby, brown booby, red-footed booby, Nazca booby and Abbott’s booby of Christmas Island in the eastern Indian Ocean. 

The masked lapwing is a large, common and conspicuous shorebird native to Australia, particularly the northern and eastern parts of the continent, as well as New Zealand and New Guinea. In the family Charadriidae, which consists of plovers, lapwings and dotterels, the masked lapwing is the biggest of the bunch. The masked lapwing reaches a length of 14 inches and can weigh 368 grams. 

The cedar waxwing sports a jaunty crest. Unlike many birds with only males wearing the mask, both sexes wear sleek black masks. The world’s two other waxwings — bohemian waxwing and Japanese waxwing – are also masked. I’ve seen large flocks of cedar waxwings in recent weeks. Late summer is usually a good time to find these jaunty birds in the region.

There’s no masked crow, but there is a hooded crow. Ranging across Europe and Asia, this crow has different common names in various countries.  In Ireland, it is called caróg liath or grey crow, while in Germany its often called the “mist crow.” It’s also called the Scotch crow and the Danish crow. The hooded crow is associated with fairies in the Scottish highlands and Ireland. There’s an 18th century tradition in Scotland in which shepherds would make offerings to them to keep fairies from attacking sheep. 

There’s a masked duck native to the American tropics. From time to time, these small ducks even stage invasions into southern states like Florida and Texas. A male masked duck in breeding plumage has a black face mask, bright blue bill and dark rusty-red body.

The masked trogon is another bird of the American tropics, ranging mostly in the Andes of South America. Males are variously glossy green, reddish-bronze or golden-green on their head, chest and back, with a red belly and a distinct red eye-ring. There’s usually a white band of feathers that separates the red belly from the greenish plumage of this bird. The trogons are closely related to the family of brilliant birds known as quetzals. 

The masked flowerpiercer is related to tanagers and can be found in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Flowerpiercers are so named because of a sharp hook on the tip of their upper mandible which they use to slice open the base of flowers to get at the nectar. It’s a simple but effective hack for a bird unable to hover like a hummingbird. 

Found in Vietnam and China, the masked laughing thrush is a sociable, noisy thrush reflected by its common Chinese name, which means “seven sisters.” These birds often produce their harsh chattering when deep under cover of tangled vegetation. 

The masked finch is a small songbird found in dry savannah across northern Australia. Like the aforementioned masked laughingthrush, this finch is a noisy bird. Hundreds or even thousands of individuals may gather at popular watering holes to drink, bathe and preen, all while chattering constantly. 

The masked fin foot is found in the brackish waters of the eastern Indian subcontinent, which includes Indochina, Malaysia and Indonesia. This odd bird has been described as a combination of a cormorant and hornbill. This unique bird is endangered. Although a 2009 survey indicated that 600 to 1,700 masked finfoots existed, a worrisome 2020 survey found only 100 to 300 individuals. Most of the surviving individuals are found in Bangladesh and Cambodia. 

Lesser masked weaver, an African species, is a colony-nesting bird. Only the males show a distinctive mask of black feathers over the face. The rest of the male’s plumage is a bright yellow-green.

The golden masked owl is a barn owl endemic to the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea. This owl’s facial disc, which is white in most barn owls, is tinged with russet-gold that does indeed form the shape of a partial mask like those used for masquerades.

There are other “masked” birds, but I think this sampling provides ample evidence that the mask appears frequently in the various plumage patterns worn by the world’s almost 10,000 species of birds.

Take care and stay well. For questions about birds, or to make a comment or share an observation, email me at [email protected]