Bird Beaks (Anatomy, Types & Unique Ones)

Bird Beaks

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All birds have beaks, but while many people think they’re just for eating and drinking, they enable the bird to do so much more. Birds use their beaks for collecting materials for their nests, fighting, preening themselves, and even for heat exchange.

Knowing that bird beaks are such versatile body parts, it probably won’t surprise you that there are many different types. This in-depth guide tells you everything you need to know about the amazing bird beak.

Parts of a Bird’s Bill

Bird beak anatomy

A bird’s beak is not just a single feature; it’s made up of several different parts, each of which serves its own purpose.

Beaks, sometimes called a bill or a rostrum, are made from keratin which is the same material we find in our hair and nails. Unlike humans, birds don’t have teeth within their beaks, although some do have tooth-like features called tomia.

Let’s take a look at the anatomy of a bird’s beak.


The common term for the nares is the nostrils. These can be situated in different places depending on the bird and can help to identify it. Some types of raptors have a fleshy cere over the nares. Other species, particularly coastal birds, have elongated nares, which they use to filter salt water.


The lores are not a part of the beak itself but the area between the base of the beak and the bird’s eyes. Sometimes there is a notable color difference in this part which can help in identifying the species.


The maxilla is the top part of the beak and is sometimes called the upper mandible. This part of the beak is vastly different between species in terms of shape, size, color, and distinguishing features.


Opposite to the maxilla is the mandible or lower part of the bird’s beak. Again the appearance of this will vary drastically between species with some having markings or other distinct features.


The tip of the bird’s beak can be either sharp or dull and this is determined by what the bird eats. If the bird is a carnivore, then it’ll typically have a hook-shaped tip, whereas birds that feed on vegetation, such as aquatic species, may have nails on the tip which are small bumps.


The culmen is a line down the center of the top of the beak, but it’s not always easy to see. That said, there are some species whose culmen provide a clear distinction between one side of the beak and the other.


At the point where the upper and lower parts of the beak meet, there is a fleshy part called the gape. When birds are young, the gape can appear to be oversized, but as they get older, their feathers cover it making it less prominent. It’s thought that baby birds have a more obvious gape so their parents can see when they’re begging for food.


The chin isn’t actually part of the beak itself but rather the feathered area underneath the mandible. This area can be a different color from the other parts of the bird’s head and neck making it a good way of identifying species.

Types of Bird Bills

All birds are different in terms of their diet and behavior. This means that each beak is just as unique as it’s designed to help the bird perform various tasks and ultimately survive. Therefore, you’ll notice that beaks come in a variety of colors, shapes, textures, and sizes.

Hooked Bill (Killing & Shredding)

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

A wide range of carnivorous birds have a beak with a hooked tip. They’re found on numerous species of raptors and are used for hunting allowing the bird to rip and tear the meat. The hook curves over the lower part of the beak and the structure is very secure.

Birds that have a hooked beak include:

  • Crested Caracara (Caracara plancus)
  • Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
  • Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
  • Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
  • Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

Conical-Shaped Bill (Cracking Seeds)

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

These cone-shaped beaks are incredibly robust, pointed and tend to be quite short. They allow birds to crack open seeds and you’ll often see the type of beak on the birds in your backyard as they’re common for songbirds.

Birds that have this type of beak include:

  • House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
  • Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)
  • Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
  • American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)
  • Dark-Eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

Long & Thin Bill (Drinking Nectar)

Crimson Sunbird (Aethopyga siparaja)

Some birds have a long, tubular beak that allows them to drink nectar from flowers. Between species, the shape of this type of beak may vary slightly according to the type of flowers the birds usually feed on.

Birds that have this type of beak include:

  • Rivoli’s Hummingbird (Eugenes fulgens)
  • Crimson Sunbird (Aethopyga siparaja)
  • Cardinal Myzomela (Myzomela cardinalis)
  • Curve-Billed Thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre)

Chisel-Shaped Bill (Wood Boring)

Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

These beaks are long and tapered and allow the bird to drill into wood which they often do to remove insect larvae from the bark of trees or for nesting.

Woodpeckers are well known for their ability to bore into wood, so it may leave you wondering how they manage to avoid a brain injury with all that chiseling. After all, when their beaks impact the tree, they experience 1200g (2.6 lbs), and according to scientists, humans suffer a concussion at 80g (0.18 lbs)!

But woodpeckers have specially adapted skulls and incredibly strong neck muscles that help to absorb shock. Their bones consist of a higher mineral content, making them much stronger and more resistant despite the bone being much thinner than other birds. This, coupled with less fluid between the skull and the brain, means that the birds can hammer their beaks against trees without causing any damage to their brains.

Birds that have this type of beak include:

  • Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)
  • Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
  • Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)
  • Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus)

Flat and Wide Bill (Filtering)

Northern Shoveler Duck (Spatula clypeata)

Aquatic birds that feed on fish and plants from the water need a way to get rid of liquid as they feed and they do this using a filtering beak. The beak allows the bird to filter out water and dirt, leaving them with just their food. This helps when scooping food from the riverbed.

Birds with this type of beak include:

  • American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber)
  • Northern Shoveler Duck (Spatula clypeata)
  • Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus)
  • Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata)
  • Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

Short Curved Bill (Fruit Eating)

Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao)

Birds that mainly feed on fruit and nuts have short curved beaks which allow them to open seeds, fruits, and nuts. The tip of the beak is specialized, which means the bird can extract the pulp and seeds as well as remove inedible parts.

What’s interesting is that these are the only types of birds that can independently move the upper part of the beak. The reason for this is that it allows them to create more force when cracking open tough nuts.

Birds with this type of beak include:

  • Senegal Parrot (Poicephalus senegalus)
  • Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao)
  • Hyacinth Macaw(Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus)

Long & Pointed Bill (Spearing Fish)

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)

Birds that feed on fish; called piscivorous birds have a long, spear-like beak that enables them to catch fish from the water. On top of this, the beak usually has serrated edges to prevent the prey from escaping. These beaks are incredibly strong and have a curved tip. Some even have a fleshy pouch in the mandible so the bird can store its food for later.

Birds that have this type of beak include:

  • Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)
  • Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
  • Northern Jacana (Jacana spinosa)
  • Eurasian Bittern (Botaurus stellaris)

Short & Stubby Bill (Insect Catching)

Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)

There are two types of insect-catching beaks. Birds that catch insects with their mouths open in mid-air have a shorter, wider beak, whereas those that catch insects while not in flight have beaks that are thinner and straighter.

In both cases, the beak acts like a pair of tweezers, and some have beaks that are so strong, they can get through tree bark to pick out larvae.

Birds that have this type of beak include:

  • Common Swift (Apus apus)
  • Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)
  • Great-Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus)
  • European Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus)

Long-Slender Curved Beak (Probing)

White Ibis (Eudocimus albus)

Some birds have a long, thin, curved beak that they use when probing the shoreline for food. They often feed on things like crabs and invertebrates that are buried in the sand, and the downward curve of the beak allows the bird easy access.

Birds that have this type of beak include:

  • Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)
  • Hudsonian Whimbrel (Numenius hudsonicus)
  • Red-Necked Avocet (Recurvirostra novaehollandiae)
  • White Ibis (Eudocimus albus)

What Other Factors Determine the Shape of the Bird’s Bill Apart from its Diet?

What birds eat plays a significant role in why their beaks are the way that they are. But this isn’t the only factor to determine beak shape.

Scientists studied how birds used their beaks in a variety of ways and determined that those living in cooler climates tended to have shorter beaks, even among the same species. This is because a shorter beak is better able to retain heat.

What’s interesting is that the shape of the bird’s beak changes how it sounds when it sings, so it could also impact how they communicate with one another.

The more we learn, the more we discover that beak shape is not as related to diet as we first thought. In fact, according to one researcher at the University of Bristol, it accounts for only 12% of the beak shape.

Other factors may include things like display and how the bird constructs its nest.

Birds with Truly Unique Beaks

There are some birds whose beaks are so unique that we can use them to identify the species without looking at anything else. I’m fascinated by the diversity among bird beaks, so let’s take a look at some that really stand out from the crowd!

1. Rhinoceros Hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros)

The rhinoceros hornbill is one of the most distinctive looking birds in the world, and that’s largely because of its beak. It has a pointed beak which it uses for feeding on fruit and sometimes small insects. But it’s the second beak above this that really gets it noticed.

The ‘second beak’ is known as a casque and is a hollow structure made from keratin. It’s thought that this casque is used as an acoustic chamber to amplify the call of the male birds. The casque and beak start off white but as the bird rubs its bill on a gland under the tail, it stains orange. 

Rhinoceros hornbills live in tropical forests around the world and are common in Asia. They’re the national bird of Malaysia.

2. Kiwi (Apteryx spp.)

The kiwi is the national symbol of New Zealand, to which they are endemic. These birds have very poor eyesight, but they are able to hunt in other interesting ways.

For example, they have a very strong sense of smell and are the only birds whose nostrils are located at the end of the beak. They’ll tap their beaks on the ground and use vibrations to determine the location of worms which they can detect as far as 3cm (1.2 inches) under the soil.

When they locate their prey, kiwis will use their long beaks to dig down, moving them back and forth to widen the hole. In order to protect the beak, the top part extends over the mandible.

3. Sword-Billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera)

Sword-billed hummingbirds are unique in that they are the only bird whose beak is longer than its body! Their bills can grow up to 10cm (4 inches) and this means that the bird has to stand in a diagonal stance to retain its balance.

But these birds have a long beak for a reason; to feed from tubular flowers that other hummingbirds cannot access. Because of this, they’re the sole pollinators for the flowers they feed off.

Sword-billed hummingbirds can be found in the temperate regions of the Andes and typically live between an elevation of 2500m (8,200 feet) and 3500m (11,500 feet).

4. Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)

The Atlantic puffin, as its name suggests, spends most of its time around the northern parts of the Atlantic Ocean coastlines. The birds tend to nest on rocky cliffs and can dive up to 40m (130 feet) in search of food. These birds can live as long as 20 years!

Atlantic puffins have broad, triangular beaks that are brightly colored owing to their carotenoid-rich diet. However, these colors fade during the winter as they’re only beneficial in mating season to attract a partner. There’s even evidence to show that they’ll glow under UV light!

Sometimes called the clown of the ocean because of its bright features, the Atlantic puffin has a jagged upper beak which allows it to carry more fish at once.

5. Toco Toucan (Ramphastos toco)

The toco toucan is the largest of all toucans and has a beak that is the most massive in comparison to the body of all birds. It’s actually 1/20 the mass of the whole bird! However, while it has a very large and brightly colored beak, this is more of a mechanical structure than anything else.

The super-sized beak of the toco toucan serves as a way of keeping the bird cool. It fills with blood, sending excess body heat to the beak where it can escape. This is important since these birds live in warm regions such as humid forests or semi-dry savannahs.

6. Black Skimmer (Rynchops nigra)

The black skimmer is unique in that it flies very low to the water, using its beak to scoop up fish as it moves. The lower mandible is longer than the upper mandible, which aids in this hunting technique and when it makes contact with a fish, the beak will snap shut.

But these birds have other beak-related adaptations to help in hunting. For example, it has riblets to reduce drag as it moves through the water, a feature often seen in sharks.

These birds are commonly found around barrier island beaches and mainland sandy beaches. They’re medium-sized birds that can grow up to 60cm (23 inches) and have a wingspan of around 112cm (44 inches).

7. Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja)

One of the first things you’ll notice about the roseate spoonbill is its pink coloration. It gets this color from some of the crustaceans it eats which feed on algae that produce the color; this is the same in flamingoes.

Roseate spoonbills have a long, spoon-shaped bill that they sweep through the water by swinging their head from side to side. This helps to sift out fish and other animals, such as salamanders and crayfish, on which it occasionally feeds.

These birds live in swamps, mangroves, saltwater lagoons, and other brackish areas. What’s fascinating is that they have touch receptors in their beaks to help them locate their prey.

8. American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

One of the largest birds in North America is the American white pelican which is easily identified because of its huge, long beak. The beak has a pouch that the bird uses to catch and store fish. However, it hunts in a slightly different manner than other types of pelican, such as the brown pelican. It dips its beak into the surface of the water to scoop up fish.

The American white pelican has an almost prehistoric appearance with its massive beak, stubby legs, and stout body with a huge head. They’re usually found in coastal areas during winter and spend a lot of time in shallow wetlands during the breeding season. At this time, the adults develop a showy horn on the tip of the beak.

9. Common Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra)

The common crossbill often referred to as the red crossbill in North America, has a very unique feature in that the upper and lower tips of the beak are crossed. This enables the bird to get into pinecones to extract the seed. For tough cones, it’ll use its beak to twist them open. They couple this technique with incredibly strong bite muscles.

They rely so heavily on their diet of pine cones that they feed them to their young so when the cones are abundant, the birds can breed at any time of the year.

The common crossbill can be found in coniferous forests in North America and is also found in parts of Asia and Europe.

10. Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus)

The long-billed curlew breeds on the Great Plains of North America and during the winter, it can be found along coastal areas. It’s the largest shorebird on the continent measuring 60cm (23 inches) on average.

These birds have incredibly long beaks, which they use to probe in the mud in search of aquatic invertebrates. During the breeding season, they’ll use their long, thin bills to pick up insects like grasshoppers. The females typically have longer beaks than the males.

11. Shoebill Stork (Balaeniceps rex)

As you may guess from its name, the shoebill stork has a beak that looks like a shoe, a wooden clog to be exact. These prehistoric-looking birds are pretty intimidating hunters, especially if you’re a young crocodile since the shoebill stork can break these animals’ necks!

The shoebill isn’t actually a stork and is classified in a family all of its own known as balaenicipitidae although it does have some similarities to storks and herons.

These birds are native to African swamps and use their large beaks to ambush and kill prey, lunging at them before piercing them with the sharp edges. Typically they’ll feed on frogs and reptiles, and these huge birds can grow up to 1.5 meters (5 feet) in height!

12. Wood Stork (Mycteria americana)

The wood stork is the only species of stork to be found in North America and as it stands, it’s thought that there are around 5000 breeding pairs. They live in swamps, tidal waters, and marshes and can grow up to 115 cm (45 inches).

They’re also found around the Caribbean and South America, and wood storks have a unique appearance in that the head and neck are bald.

These birds feed on small fish, invertebrates, and mollusks and use their long beaks which they sweep through the water in search of food. Once they find it, they’ll quickly snap their bill shut and trap their prey.

13. American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber)

American flamingoes are one of six species of flamingo found worldwide and are the only species that is native to North America, although they don’t breed here.

They have a hooked beak that points downwards and a row of bristles on the inner part of the bill. They also have bristles along the tongue, and both sets are used to filter feed. Many of the foods that American flamingos eat contain carotenoids which is what gives them their distinct pink color.

The American flamingo favors shallow coastal lagoons and mudflats where it will choose a partner to mate with for life. These large birds can grow up to 105cm (41 inches) and can live for up to 20 years.

14. American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana)

The American avocet lives on beaches and in shallows lakes or prairie ponds where it uses its long thin beak to sweep the sediment in search of aquatic invertebrates. If the bird is hunting in clear water, it can use its beak to simply pick out food.

One of the most distinguishing features of the American avocet’s beak is that it is recurved, meaning the tip points upwards. These shorebirds also have long legs for wading but will often be seen swimming upturned like a duck when hunting in deeper waters.

15. Southern Giant Petrel (Macronectes giganteus)

It’s important to note that there are two species of giant petrel; the Northern and the Southern. To tell them apart one only needs to look at their beaks. That of the Southern giant petrel is green whereas its Northern cousin has a red beak.

Southern giant petrels live in the Antarctic, but it’s not uncommon for them to move further north to Australia, Africa, and Chile.

On their beaks, they have nasal passages called naricorns which connect in the center. Their beaks are made up of horny plates.

The Southern giant petrel is sometimes called the stinkpot owing to its ability to spit nasty-smelling liquid at predators.

16. King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa)

Vultures are often thought of as unattractive birds, but the king vulture is very different. With glorious white plumage that shines iridescent, they’re very beautiful birds.

There’s not a lot that we understand about these birds in the wild, and that’s largely because they choose very high points in the trees which are inaccessible to humans. However, we do know that they have hooked beaks with very sharp edges.

Since they are scavengers that only feed on dead animals, they use these beaks to tear apart the meat. On the top of the beak, there is a fleshy orange caruncle, although this doesn’t typically form until the bird is four years old.

King vultures are found in Central and South America, and they played an important role in Mayan culture.

What is a Basal Knob on a Bird’s Bill?

What is a basal knob on a bird’s bill?

A basal knob is a projection, swelling, or bump which can be seen at the base of the beak on some birds. It’s a common feature among water birds like geese and swans and can appear on both males and females. However, basal knobs are more common in males.

The basal knob tends to enlarge during mating season which suggests that it plays a role in sexual selection. In addition to increasing in size, the basal knob may also change color during mating season.

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