The Amazing Abilities Of Bird Beaks

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image of a pelican bird beak

There are over 900 bird species in North America, and if there’s one thing interesting about these birds, it’s that every species is distinct. This includes their colorful feathers and their unique bird beaks

But did you know that apart from the appearance, each beak may also function differently? 

As each bird has undergone an evolution, each species found its own way to adapt and survive among different circumstances. And because their beak allows them to feed, it’s also one thing that changed throughout the years. 

In this article, we’re going to talk about the amazing abilities of bird beaks. I’m going to tackle topics like: 

  • What is a beak
  • Main functions of the beak
  • Different types of beaks and their functions
  • Birds with unique beaks

So, if these are things that you’re interested in knowing, read on… 

What is a Beak? 

To start this article, let’s begin by knowing what a bird’s beak is. 

Beaks or also called bills are technically the bird’s mouth. It’s mostly found in birds but was also found in some non-avian dinosaurs and mammals. Biologically, beaks are defined as a type of mouth where the jaw has no teeth and comes with a horny layer covered with keratin. 

Now that we fully understand what beaks are, let’s go over their main functions… 

Main Functions of the Beak

image of baby birds feeding and beaks
Photo by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

There are four main functions of the beak, and I’m going to talk about each of them below… 

  • Feeding: The first and most obvious function of a beak is feeding. They are what birds use when they probe their food, hold their food, carry their food, feed their young birds, or even kill their prey.
  • Preening: This is also another important task for the bird’s beak. Preening allows the bird to remove any parasites in their feathers to prevent illness or infection brought by these pests. 
  • Communication: Next, we also have birds that communicate through their beaks. And this doesn’t only mean communicating through singing. But some bird species clap their beaks to communicate. Hawks, for example, clap their bills when they detect a threat around them, while some bird species use their beaks during courtship. 
  • Nest building: Another helpful way birds use their beaks is when they build their nest. It’s mainly what they use to pick up any nesting material such as leaves, stones, grasses, sticks, etc. 

In other words, beaks are very useful for birds. It’s the main thing that helps them get through every day. 

However, even if beaks have these general functions, depending on the kind of beak the bird has, feeding and everyday behaviors can differ for each. That’s why we’re also going to explore the different types of beaks we see around us and how birds utilize them. 

Different Types of Beaks and Their Functions

Now, let’s try to check out the different types of beaks and how birds utilize them. 

As we already know, beaks mostly differ in size and shape. And this usually depends on how the bird adapts to its environment. The beaks of carnivorous birds may differ from the beaks of granivorous birds, and we’ll check all of that out in this article. 

Hooked Beaks

Hooked beaks are what you would commonly see in carnivorous birds. These beaks are known to be really strong, and as the name implies, the upper part of the beak protrudes over the lower part, and you’ll immediately recognize the sharp hook. 

These beaks serve one primary purpose, to feed. Birds with hooked beaks get a hold of their prey and even use these beaks to tear and pull their prey apart. 

Birds that have hooked beaks are birds of prey and scavengers, which includes: 

Cracker-style Beaks

There are two types of cracker-style beaks – cone-shaped and curved beaks. Both beaks are short and commonly seen in small to medium-sized birds

Cone-shaped beaks are designed to crack shells open, which is why it’s commonly found in songbirds like: 

Curved beaks, on the other hand, are bigger than cone-shaped beaks and are designed to crack open hard fruits and nuts. These beaks are commonly found in frugivorous birds. 

Although the beaks are designed to deal with fruit, the tip of the upper part of their beaks can serve them well if they want to eat seeds. Birds with these beaks are also the only birds that can move the beak’s upper part independently. 

Birds with short, curved beaks include: 

  • Parrots
  • Macaws
  • Parakeets
  • Cockatoos

Tweezer Beaks

Tweezer beaks can be easily described as straight, thin beaks. They are common in insectivorous birds, and depending on the bird species, the beak design may vary. What do I mean by this? 

Well, there are several kinds of birds that eat insects. 

There are insectivorous birds that catch insects while being mid-air. These birds usually have short, wide, and flat beaks. 

Some insectivorous birds catch insects while they are perching on a branch or a fence. Their beaks are usually just short, straight, and thin to make it easier for them to catch birds while they’re still. 

There are also insectivorous birds that feed on the ground. These birds usually have thin and more elongated beaks so they can penetrate better below ground. 

And lastly, we have our favorite woodpeckers that feed on trees. These birds mainly have straight and powerful beaks so that they can easily penetrate through the tree bark. 

Probing Beaks

Probing beaks are best described as beaks that are long, thin, and needle-like. As the name implies, these beaks are designed to be very thin so they can probe into inside flowers to get nectar. 

Our beautiful hummingbirds are the best example of birds with probing beaks. But other birds like sunbirds and spinebills have probe-style beaks, too. 

Strainer Beaks

Strainer beaks are wide and flat beaks that have a filtering system. These beaks are common in birds that feed in the water. These birds generally need a filtering system to filter out sand, water, and other debris that they might also consume while they’re eating. 

Birds that have strainer beaks would include: 

  • Flamingos
  • Ducks
  • Swans

Spatulate Beaks

Not all water birds have strainer beaks. Some of them have spatulate beaks, which are long and elongated. These beaks allow birds to search for their food underwater while still keeping their heads above water. 

Birds that commonly have spatulate beaks are wading birds like spoonbills and storks. 

Large, Long, and Curved Beaks

Fish-eating birds like seagulls and albatrosses have large, long, and strong beaks with curved tips to prevent fish and other prey from escaping. 

Spear Beaks

Last but not least, we have spear beaks. From the name itself, these beaks are long and sharp, mainly designed for stabbing fish. Birds like herons, kingfishers, terns, and other fish-eating birds usually dive into the water to pierce their prey and feed. 

North American Birds with Unique Beaks

We’ve listed eight general types of beaks in this article. But some bird beaks may be more unique than others. Below is a list of six North American Birds with distinctive Beaks:

1. Crossbills

Crossbills are well-known for what looks like deformed bills. As the name implies, the upper and lower part of their bills is crisscrossed, which serves one specific purpose: to crack open their favorite food, which are the seeds inside pinecones. 

There are three crossbills found in North America: 

  • Red Crossbills
  • White-winged Crossbills
  • Cassia Crossbills

The Red Crossbill is the most common out of the three. These are small-sized birds known for their brick-red colored bodies with darker wings and tails. Females, however, have yellowish underparts and brown to olive upperparts. 

These birds are resident in most parts of Canada, some parts of the eastern United States, and other parts of Mexico. They mainly breed in coniferous forests, especially forests rich in hemlock, spruce, Douglas-fir, and their favorite pine trees. 

The next common Crossbill is the White-winged Crossbill. They also have a reddish color but are more pinkish than the Red Crossbills. Their wings and tails are black-colored, and as their name implies, you’ll notice some white wing bars. 

Female White-winged Crossbills feature yellow-colored bodies and brownish wings and tails with white wing bars. 

These birds are resident birds of Alaska and Canada, but some do winter in the northern parts of the US. Like the Red Crossbills, you’ll also generally find the White-winged Crossbills in coniferous forests, especially in the ones rich in spruce and tamarack seeds. 

Lastly, we have the Cassia Crossbill. This species is the least common of the three and is only found in Idaho all year round. 

The birds feature a combination of red and orange colors with grayish-brown wings and tails. Female birds, on the other hand, are grayish-green in color with easily identifiable yellow-colored bellies. 

2. American White Pelican

The next bird on our list is the American White Pelican, one of the largest birds in North America. They grow at a length of 50-65 inches and weigh around 158.7-317.5 inches. 

These birds are easy to identify, thanks to their snowy white-colored bodies, black wing feathers, and yellow-orange bills. But perhaps the most distinguishing feature of this bird is its beaks. 

Like most pelicans, these birds have pouched beaks that help them catch fish and gulp lots of water. But their beaks also come with a filtering system that can excrete excess salt. 

American White Pelican beaks can grow at almost one and a half feet long. However, what really makes these birds’ beaks unique is that a horn of around two inches grows during the breeding season. 

No other pelican species are found to have this kind of feature on their beaks, but it’s assumed that this horn is involved in courtship. 

3. Black Skimmer

Next, we have another shorebird, the Black Skimmer. They are about the size of crows and grow at a length of 15.8-19.7 inches and weigh around 9.3-12.9 ounces. 

These birds feature all-black-colored upperparts and all-white-colored underparts. The birds’ legs are red-orange, and their beaks are half red-orange and half black colored. But what really makes these birds unique is their beaks. 

Unlike most birds, the Black Skimmers’ beaks look unequal. The upper beak is a lot shorter compared to the lower beak. And though this may look like it’s harder for them to catch prey with these beaks, it’s actually very helpful. 

Black Skimmers feed while flying. So, as they do this, they just dip their lower beak underwater, trying to find fish. The upper beak, on the other hand, just waits above water. And once the lower beak senses a fish, the upper beak snaps, getting a hold of their prey. 

This is very interesting because, according to research, Black Skimmers are the only bird species that feed this way. This is probably why they’re the only birds with this kind of beak. 

4. Roseate Spoonbill

Next on our list is another waterbird, the Roseate Spoonbill, the only spoonbill species found in America. 

These birds are quite large. They grow at a length of 27.9-33.9 inches and weigh around 42.3-63.5 ounces. And as their name suggests, these birds are of rosy pink color, with their shoulders and rump appearing to be brighter than the rest of their bodies. 

The birds have white-colored necks, yellowish-green heads, and bright red eyes. But what you’d easily notice in these birds are their spoon-like beaks. 

These beaks allow the birds to search for food underwater while staying above ground. They’ll just dip their beak under shallow waters and move their heads from side to side while walking. Once they detect a fish or other aquatic animals, they grab their prey and lift their beaks before swallowing their food. 

5. Long-billed Curlew

The Long-billed Curlew is another shorebird that features a unique beak. These are large birds that grow at a length of 19.7-25.6 inches and weigh around 17.3-33.5 ounces. They are generally brown overall with bar-like patterns on their upper parts. 

As their name implies, this curlew species have long, thin beaks that slightly curve downwards. These beaks are among the longest of all shorebirds and undeniably serves them well. 

These long beaks are very adaptable wherever the Long-billed Curlews decide to find food. Whether it’s in coastal areas or grasslands, their beaks are very versatile, allowing them to dig underground to catch shrimp, crabs, or even earthworms. 

6. Atlantic Puffin

Next, we have the Atlantic Puffin or also referred to as the clown of the sea. These birds may look similar to penguins when standing because of their black-colored upperparts and white-colored underparts, but these are far from 

The birds grow at a length of 10.2-11.4 inches and weigh around 10.9-19.4 ounces. They’re easily recognizable for their colorful beak pattern. However, this colorful pattern is not the only thing that makes these birds unique. 

It’s also found that the birds’ upper beak contains serrations, allowing the birds to carry more than ten fish at once. 

7. American Avocet

Last on our list is the American Avocet, another shorebird. These birds are known for their elegant and slender appearance. They grow at a length of 16.9-18.5 inches and weigh around 9.7-12.3 ounces. 

These birds feature white-colored bodies with black and white wings. During the breeding season, they have a brick-red colored head that turns pure white when they’re not breeding. 

The beaks of the American Avocet are long, very thin, and slightly curved upward. Like the spoonbills, the birds use their beaks by skimming the water, searching for food, mainly crustaceans, and insects. Once the birds detect food, they use their beak to scoop up their prey. 

Other Birds With Unique Beaks Worldwide

But of course, birds with unique bird beaks are all over the world. So, if you love traveling outside the country, you might want to see these other birds as well: 

Rhinoceros Hornbill

The Rhinoceros Hornbill is mainly found in tropical or subtropical areas. They are native birds found in the rain forests of Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand. 

Hornbills have this feature known as casque on their bills. But what makes the Rhinoceros Hornbill unique is that their casque is the largest among the hornbill species. This amplifies the birds’ calls so loud that you’ll be able to hear the Rhinoceros Hornbill throughout the rainforest. 

Shoebill

Next, we have the Shoebill or also known as the shoe-billed stork. These birds are among the critically endangered bird species, as there are only about 3,000 to 5,300 adult Shoebills left worldwide. 

These birds are native to East Africa, and if you’ve seen one, you’ll notice that they have very ancient looks. 

The first thing you’ll notice is their large beaks that grow up to 9.4 inches. As the name implies, these beaks are shaped like shoes. The beaks are strong and have sharp edges, allowing them to kill their prey once they catch it. 

Sword-billed Hummingbird

Sword-billed Hummingbirds are generally found in South America. These birds may be small, but they have very long bills. Their beaks are known to have the longest beak relative to their body size among any bird in the world. 

Because of their seemingly very long beaks, the Sword-billed hummingbirds have no choice but to groom with their feet. But the good thing is, they can feed on any flowers, especially those that have hard-to-reach nectars. 

Great Hornbill

The Great Hornbill is one of the largest hornbills native in Southeast Asia. They are easily identifiable with their large, yellow beaks. Like the Rhinoceros Hornbill, the Great Hornbill also has a unique casque. But its only purpose is to attract mates. 

Keel-billed Toucan

Next, we also have the Keel-billed Toucan, the national bird of Belize. They are black-colored birds with yellow-colored heads and a large colorful beak that is said to be one of the most colorful beaks in the world.  

It is said that their beaks grow almost a third of the total length of their bodies. However, although it is big, this bird species is not affected by the size at all. 

Flamingo

Flamingos are probably one of the most unique-looking birds worldwide. There are only six species, and they’re the only birds under their scientific bird family. 

As we all know, these birds are large, pink-colored, and have long legs. But another thing that makes these birds unique is their beaks. Although it uses a filtering system like the ducks, the Flamingos’ beaks are mainly designed to be used upside-down. 

Kiwi

Last but not least, we have the Kiwi. 

Kiwi birds are endangered and are only found in New Zealand. What’s interesting about their beaks is that they are the only birds with nostrils at the tip of their beaks. This allows the Kiwi to have a really excellent sense of smell so they can easily search for food. 

Final Thoughts About the Amazing Abilities of Bird Beaks

Beaks are often not the center of our attention as bird watchers. Often, we tend to look at the beautiful feathers, but I think after reading this article, we can all agree that birds have amazing beaks, too. 

It’s pretty amazing how there are 9,000 to 10,000 bird species in the world and that none of them have similar beaks. Each may have similar functions, but every beak is designed for a specific purpose depending on the bird species. And we can see that from the several bird species with unique beak designs.