The Basics of Bird Beaks

No matter the challenge, birds have the perfect tools for the job, right in front of their noses.

A bird’s beak is the most important resource it has, and every species has one solely designed for survival. Birds use beaks for just about everything: building nests, feeding their young, cleaning their feathers, defending themselves and eating (of course). But while birders have been able to pin down how each variety of beak is used, there’s one answer they haven’t landed on: Is it bill or is it beak?

Even around the Birds & Blooms office, we’re not always sure if we should say beak or bill. So I asked naturalists Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman to weigh in. “Ornithologists tend to say bills; the general public tends to say beaks,” they say. “One distinction that’s sometimes made is that a beak is more like the hooked beak of a hawk or an owl, while bill fits better with little birds like warblers.”

Whether you say beak or bill, here are some of the ways you’ll spot them being used right in your own backyard.

Cracking Seeds

Goldfinches use their small beaks to eat tiny, tough thistle seeds.Carmen Macuga (B&B reader)
Carmen Macuga (B&B reader) Goldfinches use their small beaks to eat tiny, tough thistle seeds.

Fill your favorite backyard feeder with sunflower seeds and wait for birds with cone-shaped bills to
swoop in for lunch. Birds like northern cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, evening grosbeaks and purple finches have thick, short beaks designed for breaking open seeds with ease. The next time one lands at a feeder, grab a handy pair of binoculars and watch closely. It expertly uses its tongue to fit a seed snugly in a special groove between its upper and lower jaws. Then, crunch! The tough hull splits in two and the meat disappears into its mouth.

Not all birds of this beak type eat large seeds, though. The American goldfinch, for example, loves thistle, or Nyjer. Its small beak is perfect for tiny, tough thistle seeds. But no matter the size of the bird, from dark-eyed juncos to purple finches, cone-shaped bills are some of the strongest around.

Catching Insects

Many birds rely on insects as their primary food source, so their beaks complement their bug-hunting styles. Warblers, gnatcatchers and wrens have slender, tweezerlike bills fit for plucking unsuspecting insects off leaves and tree branches with precision.

Other species prefer hitting the bird equivalent of the drive-thru. Purple martins, nighthawks and flycatchers have wide, flattened beaks for catching insects in midair. Tree swallows, in particular, are known for their air acrobatics. If you want to invite the spectacle to your yard, set up a simple nest box in spring—the same as you would for a bluebird—then get ready to see their beaks in action.

Sipping Nectar

Hummingbirds use their thin bills to catch small insects.Francis Hoefer (B&B reader)
Francis Hoefer (B&B reader) Hummingbirds use their thin bills to catch small insects.

A hummingbird just wouldn’t be the same without its slender, tubular bill. These birds zip from feeder to feeder, slurping up nectar with their tongues the way a butterfly does with its proboscis. Hummingbirds don’t have long bills simply to keep their equally long tongues contained, though. They also take full advantage of their unique beaks to catch insects such as fruit flies. A hummingbird’s bill is very thin and long, which makes an excellent bug-catching tool, because it can snap open and shut in less than a hundredth of a second.

Hunting Prey

For birds that gulp down seeds and insects, being toothless doesn’t pose much of a problem. But large raptors, like red-tailed hawks, bald eagles and great horned owls, survive on prey they can’t necessarily swallow whole. They need the best bill for the job: sharp, hooked beaks that pierce, pluck and pull. Without this beak shape, raptors wouldn’t be able to tear their meat into bite-sized, manageable pieces.

It’s not just raptors that sport these intimidating beaks. Shrikes are predatory songbirds that have hooked beaks to help them feed on everything from lizards and insects to small birds and mammals. They’re known to kill more prey in one sitting than they can eat, and to store the leftovers for later. Vireos are mini predators, too, and use the curved hook at the end of their beaks to methodically hunt for caterpillars.

Drilling Holes

Woodpeckers need their chisel-like bill to drill into tree trunks.John Pizniur (B&B reader)
John Pizniur (B&B reader) Woodpeckers need their chisel-like bill to drill into tree trunks.

If you’ve watched a woodpecker hammer away at a tree, you may have wondered how it doesn’t get a headache. It bores its way into trees using its strong, powerful beak with a chisel-like tip, pecking slowly and deliberately. To be able to drill holes with that much force and not come away with a concussion, a woodpecker’s beak and skull has to act like the ultimate shock absorber. Its beak is covered in layers of keratin, a protein that helps the beak stand up to compressing forces, and its skull is thick and spongy, which absorbs the rest of the impact.

What are bird beaks made of?

Your fingernails and bird bills have something in common: They both consist of a protein called keratin. The keratin layer over beak bone gives bills their glossy appearance. As the keratin wears down with use, a new layer forms, so the beak stays sharp and sleek.

Kaitlin Stainbrook
Kaitlin Stainbrook, Associate Editor, Birds & Blooms Although Kaitlin is a newbie when it comes to birding and gardening, she loves getting to learn on the job. (She's already impressed a few friends by being able to identify a couple songbirds!) Previously, she worked on other Reader's Digest magazines like Reminisce and Country Woman. Hidden talents include playing the ukulele and speaking Japanese.