Bird Anatomy: How Do Birds Use Feathers, Beaks and Feet?

From their feathers to their feet, learn more about the major features of a bird's anatomy and what makes these fascinating animals so unique.

scissor-tailed flycatcherCourtesy Darrin McNiel
Scissor-tailed flycatcher in flight

We all enjoy seeing birds in our gardens. But how much do you know about a bird’s anatomy? If you asked the average person to describe a bird, the answer probably would be a quick overview of its feathers and beak, perhaps with a short imitation of its call. When you truly look closely at a bird, though, you’ll see that these creatures have a fascinating anatomy unique in nature.

Let’s consider three key areas of bird anatomy:

How Do Birds Use Their Feathers?

The most noticeable feature of bird anatomy is the feather. No other living group of animals on the planet has them (although some extinct ones did). And as much as feathers may resemble one another superficially, they’re all different. Owls, for instance, have large flight feathers with a delicate fringe along the outer edge that allows for completely silent flight.

But there’s more to feathers than flight. After all, not all birds fly, but they all have feathers. In fact, feathers most likely first evolved as a means of insulation and protection from the elements, like hair in mammals. Birds use their feathers for communication. Males of many species sport brightly colored or ornate ones as a way to woo females. And most species can puff up their feathers to intimidate rivals or predators. Check out the common backyard birds you should know.

How Do Birds Use Their Beaks?

Whether you prefer to say beaks or bills, this aspect of bird anatomy is just as varied as feathers. Each is adapted to the kinds of food the bird eats. Cardinals and grosbeaks have heavy, blunt beaks designed to crush the shells of seeds and nuts. Robins, mockingbirds and catbirds have narrow, pointed beaks for plucking berries and catching insects. Mourning doves, quail and sparrows have short beaks for picking tiny seeds. Hawks have sharp, curved beaks for eating meat, while hummingbirds have long, narrow beaks to reach into tubular flowers for sweet nectar. Birds also use their beaks to fend off attacks. Learn more about the 4 types of bird beaks and how birds use them.

snowy egretCourtesy Tam Ryan
A snowy egret drags its feet in the water to catch fish as it flies across the pond.

How Do Birds Use Their Feet?

The bird world has a surprising diversity of feet, each shape suited to the species’ survival. Ducks and other waterfowl have webbed feet to propel them through the water. Birds of prey are armed with sharp, hooked talons for catching and killing. Wading birds such as herons have wide feet to support them on sticky mud without sinking. Songbirds have delicate, grasping feet for clutching the tree branches where they perch. Woodpeckers and their relatives have zygodactyl feet—with two toes pointing forward and two backward—which allow them to cling to and move up and down tree trunks. Learn more about how bird feet work.

No matter what shape, size or color the various features of a bird’s anatomy, one thing is true: They all help birds survive. The next time you’re watching birds in your yard, take a minute to notice their anatomical features and marvel at the beautiful symbiosis that every bird species has with its environment.

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.