Let’s Talk About Beaks

Have you noticed what a wide variety of beaks there are in the world? Bird beaks, or bills, come in a lot of different sizes and shapes. This is not random – the shape of a bird’s bill has to do with what it eats – bird bills function as tools birds use to gather and break food down with.

Let’s compare and contrast the bills of two different kinds of birds I see frequently here in D.C.:

12-10-2019 bRuby-throated hummingbirds, which visit this area in summer, have long, thin beaks. Their beaks look like drinking straws and they function a bit like them, too: a ruby-throated hummingbird pokes its long, straw-like beak down the middle of a flower in order to drink the nectar found inside. The hummingbird’s beak is shaped in a special way to do the specific job of nectar-drinking.

12-10-2019 aNorthern cardinals, which can be found in this area all year long, have short, triangular beaks. Triangles are strong and stable and having a triangular beak helps cardinals do the tough work of cracking open shells so they can get to the edible seeds inside. Again, the cardinal’s specific beak shape is ideally suited for the job it needs to do.

For a deeper dive into this topic, check out this thirteen-minute video from Cornell University’s Naturalist Outreach called Bird Feeding Adaptations: How Beaks are Adapted to What Birds Eat. The video is substantive and worth watching, even if a teeny bit glitchy (the screen goes dark a few times and you may wonder if the video cut off prematurely. It did not. Just keep watching).

I also wanted to share the link to a post from Maine Birds, a blog I love, entitled Bills as Tools: Specialized versus Generalized. The post discusses crossed-billed birds, such as the red crossbill, who specialize in harvesting the seeds in pinecones. It is fascinating. I have never seen a crossed-bill in real life and am now absolutely dying to!


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