University of Michigan Museum of Zoology

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Bird Bill Anatomy

goldfinchA cone shaped bill is found in many birds such as finches. It is a strong beak used for cracking seeds. Birds such as the American Goldfinch which feed on small thistle and other weed seeds have a small bill. Birds which specialize on large, hard seeds, such as the Rose-breasted Grosbeak shown here, have very large, heavy bills. There are many variations in between. These birds are shown approximately life-size.

ruby Throated HummingbirdLong needle-like bills are found in nectar feeding birds such as hummingbirds and sunbirds. The length of the bill determines the size of flower the bird can feed on, because the nectar is at the base of the flower tube. The ones with curved bills are adapted to feed on specific kinds of flowers with curved corollas. The flowers depend on these birds for pollination.

WarblerThin, slender, pointed beaks are found mainly in insect eaters. They are used to pick insects off leaves, twigs, and bark. This warbler is a good example.

flycatcherBeaks which are flat and wide at the base are found in birds which catch insects in flight, such as flycatchers and some warblers. These birds also often have whiskers at the corners of the mouth, which effectively widen the mouth opening, allowing more effective capture of prey.

ruby Throated HummingbirdWoodpeckers with short bills such as the Downy Woodpecker feed on thin-barked plants and weed stems.

Woodpeckers have strong beaks which taper to the tip, forming a chisel for pecking holes in trees for food or nests. Most feed on insects which li ve under the bark.

ruby Throated HummingbirdPileated Woodpeckers, the largest species in North America, feed on the large grubs of wood-boring beetles and carpenter ants, which live under thicker barked trees.

ruby Throated HummingbirdHawks, owls, and other birds which catch and kill live prey have sharp, curved beaks. These are used to bite the skull or neck and also to tear the body into pieces small enough to swallow.

ruby Throated HummingbirdFalcons and shrikes have a "tooth" on the side of the bill for added cutting power.

ruby Throated HummingbirdCowbirds and other members of the New World blackbirds, such as Red-winged Blackbird and Grackle, have an angled bill which is good for cracking seeds and probing in the ground or vegetation for insects.

bobwhiteThis Bob-white Quail has a short stout bill which is used mainly for picking seeds and insects from the ground and biting tender shoots and buds from shrubs.

ruby Throated HummingbirdTanangers and several other kinds of birds have a "tooth" on the side of the bill which helps to cut tough food.

ruby Throated HummingbirdCrossbills are finches which have very specialized bills for removing pine seeds from cones. By inserting the bill into the cone and opening it, the cone scales are forced apart, allowing the bird to extract the seed. Some birds have the bills crossed one way, and some the other way.

ruby Throated HummingbirdBirds which catch fish, such as this bittern and other herons, have long, straight bills. The edges are very sharp for holding the slippery fish.

ruby Throated HummingbirdSome fish eaters, such as this cormorant, have a hook on the end of the bill for holding the fish.

ruby Throated HummingbirdMergansers, ducks specialized for eathing fish, have sharp tooth-like structures on the edge of the bill to hold fish tightly.

ruby Throated HummingbirdDucks such as the Shoveler feed mainly by filtering out animal or plant material from the water. The combs on the sides of the bill catch the food which is then removed with the tongue and swallowed. The nail on the tip of the bill is used for biting off vegetation.

ruby Throated HummingbirdFlamingos feed in much the same way as ducks or baleen whales, by taking in a mouthful of water, closing the bill, and forcing the water out by pushing with their tongue. Small shrimps and other animals are caught in the comb-like structures on the sides of the bill.

ruby Throated HummingbirdThe Skimmer, related to gulls, terns, and shorebirds, has probably one of the strangest bills. They feed by flying just above the surface of the water with the open knife-like lower jaw cutting through the water. When a fish is encountered the jaw snaps shut.

ruby Throated HummingbirdThis Long-billed Curlew, like other shorebirds, has a long narrow bill for probing in mud and sand for insects and worms. The tip of the bill is very sensitive so the bird can feel when it touches its food. In some of these birds the tip of the bill can open to grab the food even when the rest of the bill stays shut.

ruby Throated HummingbirdToucans feed on fruit and use the serrated edges of their bills to cut the fruit. The main purpose of the large and colorful bill is for display, however. The bill is quite strong but very light weight since it is not solid bone, but has a honeycomb of bony struts inside.

ruby Throated HummingbirdSome birds beaks are used for things besides getting food. The Puffin has a large bright red bill which is used for courtship display. During the winter the colorful outside pieces fall off and the bill is smaller and dull colored.

ruby Throated HummingbirdSeabirds in the order Procellariformes, also called tubenoses, have a unique structure of the nostrils. They are in the shape of tubes on the top or sides of the bill.