what do birds do with their beaks

What is a bird beak? Is it just a funny-looking version of a nose, or is it something else entirely?

Birds use their beaks for a wide variety of functions, including communication and defense, as well as eating. These amazing appendages might seem simple, but they hold plenty of surprises. If you want to learn more (or maybe feel a little nosy), join us for a dive into the world of bird beaks below.

Birds beaks evolved gradually from the toothed snouts of their dinosaur ancestors. Some hints about how exactly that happened come from a gull-like bird that lived in Kansas around 70 to 90 million years ago. Ichthyornis dispar had a muscular, toothed jaw tipped with a pincer-like beak that it probably used to grasp morsels of food. Maybe, scientists theorize, that beak helped replace the grasping forelimbs of this prehistoric birds ancestors, which had been co-opted for wings when flight developed.

Bird beaks are made mostly of bone — theyre just a specialized modification of the upper and lower jaw bones shared by almost all vertebrates. The outside of a birds beak, however, is covered not in skin, but in a thin, shiny sheath of keratin, the same protein that makes up your hair and fingernails.

The bony structure means a bird beak is very different from a human nose, which is just a cartilaginous bump on the front of your face. Birds do have nostrils (or “nares”), which are usually located near the top of the beak, where it meets the face.

Chips and cracks in a beaks outer keratin layer can heal over time, but if the underlying bone is damaged, that spells trouble; a bird cant regrow a broken beak any more than you could regrow a broken-off tooth. The keratin layer does grow slowly, very much like your fingernails, but is worn down through use, to keep it the right shape and size. Birds deprived of their normal food and behaviors, as are some captive birds, might have the keratin sheath grow abnormally. As a result, their bills might need trimming.

Incidentally, if youre wondering about the difference between “beak” and “bill,” there isnt one. At some point in the past, the word “beak” was used mostly to refer to the hooked bills of birds of prey, but now the two words are more or less synonymous.

All birds have beaks (and so do a few other animals, too, such as turtles). But those beaks arent all the same — over millions of years of evolution, bird beaks have been honed to carry out all kinds of tasks, depending on the needs of each species.

With around 10,000 bird species in the world, the variety of specialized beaks in nature could fill an entire book or set of books. Here are just a few — from beak adaptations you can spot at your backyard feeder, to extreme examples found deep in tropical rainforests.

Beaks for Cracking Seeds Scientists can tell the size of seeds typically eaten by specific bird species by measuring the average size of the birds bills. Some species, like the fiery-red Black-bellied Seedcracker of Central Africa, are even split into big-beaked birds that specialize in large, hard seeds and small-beaked birds that specialize in smaller, soft seeds.

Beaks for Sipping Nectar Hummingbirds long, delicate beaks allow them to reach deep into flowers to drink their sweet nectar, which they lap up by flicking their tongues in and out like piston pumps. The longest bird beak in the world, relative to body size, belongs to a hummingbird: The Sword-billed Hummingbirds beak measures over four inches long — and the rest of the bird is only five inches long, including the tail!

Beaks for Snapping Up Fish The Black Skimmer, a relative of terns, gets its name from its habit of flying low over the water with its beak open, holding the tip of its lower mandible beneath the surface of the water. When the submerged beak tip brushes against a fish, the skimmer snaps its bill shut and is rewarded with a meal. To facilitate this feeding strategy, skimmers have long, narrow beaks that are longer on the bottom than on the top, giving them a quirky “underbite.”

Beaks for Chiseling Wood Woodpeckers chisel-like beaks are paired with unique cranial anatomy, including plates of spongy, shock-absorbing bone in their skulls. These special features let them use their heads to hammer holes in trees without suffering any ill effects. Woodpeckers self-sharpening beaks help absorb and divert the shock of each impact, letting these birds withstand forces many times greater than what would cause a human concussion.

Beaks for Tearing Meat Perhaps the most fearsome beaks in the bird world belong to birds of prey — including eagles, hawks, and falcons — which catch and eat animals including other birds and mammals. They use their sharp, hooked beaks to tear into the flesh of their prey, ripping off morsels to eat. In 2008, a Bald Eagle named Beauty became the first bird to receive a 3D-printed prosthetic beak after her upper beak was shot off by a hunter.

Beaks for Air Conditioning South Americas Toco Toucan, owner of the most massive beak relative to body size, uses its giant schnoz for an unusual purpose: to keep cool. By increasing the blood flow into its beak, a toucan can radiate more heat back into the air around it, which is useful for keeping its body temperature down in the hot, humid forests it inhabits.

Despite the impressive ways birds have adapted to succeed in various habitats, they face mounting challenges. In less than a single human lifetime, 2.9 billion breeding adult birds have been lost from the United States and Canada, across every ecosystem. This includes familiar birds: The Dark-eyed Junco has lost an incredible 175 million individuals from its population. The White-throated Sparrow has lost 93 million.

Scientists have identified habitat loss as the biggest overall driver of bird declines. Habitat degradation is a second cause of losses. In this case, habitat doesnt disappear outright but becomes less able to support birds, such as when habitat is fragmented or altered by invasive plants, or when water quality is compromised.

Climate change exacerbates these threats, and also creates new challenges, for example, by changing habitat distributions and shifting the timing of peak food supplies for birds.

American Bird Conservancy and our Joint Venture partners have improved conservation management on 6.4 million acres of U.S. bird habitat — an area larger than the state of Maryland — over the last ten years. This is a monumental undertaking, requiring the support of many, and you can help by making a gift today.

Policies enacted by Congress and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have a huge impact on Americas birds. You can help shape these rules for the better by telling lawmakers to prioritize birds, bird habitat, and bird-friendly measures. To get started, visit ABCs Action Center.

Finally, dont overlook the impact you can have at home. Living a bird-friendly life can have an immediate impact on the birds around you. Doing so can be as easy as adding native plants to your garden, avoiding pesticides, and keeping cats indoors. To learn more, visit our Bird-Friendly Life page.

Bird Beaks for Cracking Seeds

what do birds do with their beaks

Take advantage of a convenient pair of binoculars and pay close attention the next time a bird lands at your bird feeder. Because of a unique groove in their beaks, birds with cone-shaped beaks can catch seeds and split them open. These birds then deftly remove the seed from the shell with their tongues. It skillfully inserts a seed into a unique groove between its lower and upper jaws. Then, with a crunch, the meat vanishes into its mouth as the hard hull splits in two.

However, not all birds with this kind of beak consume big seeds. The American goldfinch, for example, loves thistle, or Nyjer. Its small beak is perfect for tiny, tough thistle seeds. However, the strongest birds around have cone-shaped bills, regardless of the size of the bird—from house finches to dark-eyed juncos.

Bird Beaks for Catching Insects

what do birds do with their beaks

Since many birds’ main food source is insects, their beaks are an ideal tool for bug-hunting. With their thin, tweezer-like bills, warblers, gnatcatchers, and wrens can precisely pluck unwary insects from leaves and tree branches.

Other species prefer hitting the bird equivalent of the drive-thru. The wide, flattened beaks of flycatchers, nighthawks, and purple martins allow them to catch insects in midair. Tree swallows, in particular, are known for their air acrobatics. Set up a basic nest box in the spring, similar to what you would do for a bluebird, if you’d like to invite the spectacle into your yard. Then, prepare to witness their beaks in action. Check out.

Bird Beaks for Sipping Nectar

A cardinal flower is hovered over by a ruby-throated hummingbird, which is consuming its nectar. A hummingbird’s delicate, tubular bill is essential to its identity. These birds zip from feeder to feeder, slurping up.


What is the use of beak in birds?

A beak is used for pecking, grasping, and holding (in probing for food, eating, manipulating and carrying objects, killing prey, or fighting), preening, courtship, and feeding young.

What are 4 functions that a bird will use its beak for?

The bird world contains an amazing variety of beaks (bills). Beaks are used for eating, defense, feeding young, gathering nesting materials, building nests, preening, scratch- ing, courting and attacking. The shape and size of each species’ bill is specific for the type of food it gathers.

Can birds survive without a beak?

Birds missing either the upper or lower beak sometimes can learn to eat on their own over time, but their owners must be prepared to hand-feed them for weeks to months as the birds learn to adapt. Birds missing both upper and lower beaks generally cannot adapt and should be humanely euthanized.