How Bird Feet Work

Walk this way and learn why feet are as important as feathers.

As bird lovers, we spend a lot of time in awe of birds for their brightly patterned plumage, wing shapes and entertaining antics, not to mention that they can fly. But when not soaring through the sky, birds rely on their specially structured feet to get around. Their unique toes come in arrangements such as zygodactyl and anisodactyl, which may sound more like names of their distant dinosaur cousins, but don’t worry! You can still appreciate just how crucial birds’ feet really are. No scientific memorization required!

Bird Feet for Perching

Courtesy Michelle Nyss
Michelle Nyss (B&B reader) Chickadees grasp and release different perches thousands of times a day.

Many backyard birds, from robins to wrens and phoebes to finches, belong to a large group called perching birds. The structure of their feet helps them perch on thin twigs. These birds have three toes pointing forward and one pointing backyard, an anisodactyl arrangement, so each foot touches the perch at four separate points. When birds settle on a twig, their toes automatically tighten, thanks to the muscles in the legs and feet. Similarly, when birds rise up, the toes loosen their grip. Chickadees that flit from branch to branch may grasp and release different perches thousands of times a day.

(Read more: How to Attract Robins to Your Yard or Garden)

Bird Feet for Walking

Michael Richards (B&B reader)
Michael Richards (B&B reader) Strong legs allow roadrunners to reach high speeds.

Wild turkeys and ring-necked pheasants walk more than fly, and have strong, sturdy legs and toes. Males of both species have a spur on the back of the leg, which they may use when they get into fights. It’s typical for birds that spend a lot of time on the ground, especially hard ground, to have strong feet.

Another bird known for strong legs is the greater roadrunner of the desert Southwest. This bird has zygodactyl feet (two toes pointing forward and two backyard). It leaves X-shaped tracks, and Native American legends celebrated the fact that no one could tell from the tracks which way the bird was going. True to its name, the roadrunner can run at 20 miles per hour for quite a distance.

The ultimate walking bird is probably the ostrich, the tallest bird in the world. Its small wings are useless for flight, but it has huge, muscular legs and feet. While most birds have four toes and a few have three, ostriches are the only birds in the world with only two toes on each foot.

Bird Feet for Swimming

Kathleen Otto (B&B reader)
Kathleen Otto (B&B reader) Webbed feet help wood ducks paddle through water.

Birds that swim have special requirements. They paddle with their feet to move across the water’s surface, but the skinny little toes of a typical bird wouldn’t be useful for pushing against water. However, with webbing stretched between the toes, those feet become very effective fins. The webbed feet of ducks, geese, and swans are widely known, but we also see webbed feet on many unrelated waterbirds, such as pelicans, loons, and gulls.

Some waterbirds have only partial webbing, often in the form of expanded lobes or flaps along the edges of the toes. The bizarre feet of the American coot offer an interesting example. Those lobed toes are good for swimming, and they’re also suited for walking on land. However, grebes rarely come out on land, and they also have lobbed toes.

Bird Feet for Uneven Surfaces

Linda Van Brocklin (B&B reader)
Linda Van Brocklin (B&B reader) Great blue herons have long toes for walking on wet mud.

Birds can’t walk on water; but some marsh birds come close, with long toes that allow them to traipse across the surface of very wet mud or floating plants. We see this long-toed shape on various herons, rails, and sandpipers. The extreme examples are found on tropical shorebirds called jacanas. Their ridiculously long toes allow jacanas to walk around easily on top of floating lily paps. In fact, “lily-trotter” is one nickname for them. One species, the northern jacana, shows up in southern Texas at times.

What about walking on frozen water? Ptarmigan are small grouse that live in the far north and high mountains, regions covered with deep snow for much of the year. Like other grouse, they have fairly short toes. But ptarmigan grow a fringe of stiff feathers along the sides of their toes, which act like snowshoes, allowing them to walk across the surface of soft, fluffy snow.

(Take our quiz: How Many Shorebirds Can You Name?)

Bird Feet for Feeding

Adam Wilson (B&B reader)
Eagles use their feet to grasp prey. Photo by: Adam Wilson (B&B reader)

The word “raptor” comes from a root word that means “to seize and carry away.” Hawks, falcons, and owls have strong toes and long, sharp, curves claws, specialized for hunting, capturing, and carrying prey. Most birds use their feet for sitting in one place or moving around, but for these birds of prey, their feet are their essential tools.

Most hawks and falcons have three forward toes and one back toe. On owls, however, the outer toe is reversible: It usually swivels to the back when the owl is perched or grasping prey, giving it a zygodactyl arrangement with two toes forward and two back, but sometimes it perches with three toes forward. And then there’s the osprey, which also has this reversible outer toe. The osprey, or fish hawk, is famous for diving feet-first into water to catch fish. Besides being able to swivel its outer toe around, the osprey also has very rough scales on the soles of its toes, which likely help it keep a firm grip on slippery fish.

Raptors are big enough that you can easily see their claws, but the structure and look of songbirds’ feet is often overlooked. Head outside and observe how even the most common birds in your backyard get around when they’re not flying. It’s proof that from their feathers to their toes, birds are endlessly fascinating.

(Check it out! 7 Cool Facts About Bald Eagles!)

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard.