can birds feel their beaks

A trio of researchers, two with the University of Cape Town, the other the University of the Witwatersrand has found evidence that suggests wetland-dwelling lithornithids from the Cretaceous, likely used remote touch to find food. In their paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, C. J. du Toit, A. Chinsamy and S. J. Cunningham describe their study of remote touch in modern and ancient birds.

Prior research has shown that some foraging palaeognathous (such as kiwi) and neognathous (such as shorebirds and ibises) have what is described as “remote touch”—sensory organs in their beaks that allow them to feel the movement of prey in the ground. This sixth sense comes courtesy of Herbst corpuscles found in pits in the tip of the birds beaks. Prior research has also shown that some non-foraging birds such as emus and ostriches have similar organs in their beaks—but they do not provide any feedback to the birds brains. In this new effort, the researchers wondered if the sense organs in the non-foragers were a clue: the birds that had them may have had a common ancestor.

To find out if that might be the case, the researchers obtained hundreds of samples of bird beaks, both modern and ancient. Included in the group were four lithornithid species—extinct birds that lived as far back as the dinosaurs. The researchers first studied the modern birds very carefully to learn more about the structure of their beak sense organs. They then applied what they learned to the study of the ancient birds looking for similarities. And that led them to discovering very similar structures in the lithornithids, which led them to believe that the early birds had the very same kind of sixth sense. It also suggested they were a common ancestor of both the foraging birds with the organs and the non-foraging birds.

The researchers suggest that dinosaurs might have had similar types of organs, making it easier for them to find prey in mud or thick water. They plan to carry on their work, next looking to see if perhaps ancient birds such as the pterosaurs had the sensory organs as well.

More information: C. J. du Toit et al. Cretaceous origins of the vibrotactile bill-tip organ in birds, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2020). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2020.2322

Why Do Beaks Overgrow?

As they search for and gather food and construct nests, birds in the wild have numerous opportunities to wear down their beaks. Because pet birds typically do not have access to these same opportunities, their beaks may occasionally overgrow from lack of use. Nonetheless, a bird owner will frequently mistakenly believe that their bird’s beak is excessively long when in fact it is the typical length for the species of bird.

Some bird species—pionus parrots, some macaw species, and other parrot species, for example—have upper beaks that are typically longer than those of other bird species and can be mistakenly identified as overgrown when they are actually normal length.

In companion birds, disease processes can cause the top and bottom portions of the beak to grow excessively, in addition to wear. Overgrowth may result from trauma to the beak, metabolic disorders (such as liver disease), nutritional deficiencies, or bacterial, viral, or parasitic infections of the beak tissue. In certain situations, overgrowth manifests itself quickly within a few weeks, but in other situations, it takes months.

How to Prevent Beak Overgrowth

Small birds should be provided with cuttle bones on which to grind their beaks, and medium-sized to large birds should be offered a variety of wooden toys to chew on to help keep their beaks trim. All birds can be given hard food items (such as nuts and crunchy vegetables) to help with beak wear.

To become familiar with what a “normal” beak in that species looks like, bird owners should attempt to observe as many birds of that species as possible. However, in many cases, due to either genetic factors or underlying disease, pet birds’ beaks can overgrow even with appropriate food and toys. A bird owner should consult a veterinarian right away if they believe their pet’s beak is overgrown to make sure there is no underlying illness that needs to be treated.

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Can birds feel when you touch their beaks?

Bird’s beaks contain nerves call “corpuscles of Herbst” making the beak very sensitive. This is why only veterinarians should trim beaks when needed and captive bird owners should not stroke beaks as that may trigger sexual arousal.

Do birds like their beaks rubbed?

They have nerves in their beaks and actually like to have the beaks rubbed.

Does cutting a birds beak hurt?

It is never advisable to trim your bird’s beak at home, as there is a large blood vessel running down the center of the beak that will bleed profusely if it is nicked. The tip of the upper beak has a substantial nerve supply and will cause pain if it is broken or trimmed improperly.

Should you touch the birds beak?

Start petting your bird gently at their beak so they can get to know you and start trusting you. Especially in the beginning, do this very gently because they probably aren’t used to being handled yet. Pet them towards their beak, not their tail.