Bird Bill of Fare
by Julia Jacobs
Have you ever tried to eat soup with a fork or salad with a spoon? People have learned to use the utensil that works best for different foods they are eating: soup—spoon, salad—fork, and even fries—fingers. Birds do the same thing, only instead of using utensils they use their beaks. Birds have very different types of bills depending on what food they primarily eat. There are beaks for snatching bugs, spearing fish, probing flowers, cracking seeds and tearing meat. All of these beaks have evolved to fit the birds’ diets perfectly.
Seed eaters and bug eaters have similar beaks. They are strong enough to crack seed shells, and thin enough to capture bugs from tight spaces. The size of the beak varies greatly among these birds, ranging from the small, dainty beak on this Eastern Towhee to enormous toucan beaks used for feasting on fruit and insects.
Fish eaters have two main strategies: some catch fish by spearing or catching them directly, and others scoop fish out of the water. Birds like pelicans dive into the ocean and scoop out the water holding the fish, then let the water drain and swallow the fish. Many ducks have ridges on their beaks that help hold the fish they catch and can prevent them from slipping free before they can swallow them. Birds like kingfishers catch their fish by spearing them.
There are also birds that have a beak like a straw, which helps them probe for food. What they eat is different based on the species, but their long slender beaks are a giveaway as to their feeding strategy. Hummingbirds use their beaks to reach deep into flowers to get nectar. Ibis reach into the mud of marshes in search of crayfish and other crustaceans.
Birds of prey like this Bald Eagle have another specialized beak. Their sharp, short, curved bill reflects their primary source of food — fish, small birds and mammals. These birds use both their strong beaks and their talons to catch and eat their food.
Each of these different beaks varies greatly in size, shape, and general function, but they all fit the dietary needs of the bird they belong to. You can examine a variety of bird beaks up close in the Naturalist Center and even try your skill matching beaks to diet in our “Bird Bills & Diet” activity.
Julia Jacobs recently completed her internship in The Naturalist Center. She is an undergraduate in the Natural Resources program at North Carolina State University.