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Birds spend a lot of time in the air, but when they’re in the trees or on solid ground, they have specially adapted feet that aid them in a number of things. They’ll use their feet for moving in ways like running and swimming as well as for things like catching prey, making a nest, and preening, among other things.
Birds’ feet are pretty fascinating, and in this guide we’ll be exploring everything you need to know, including anatomy and the different types of bird’s feet.
Birds Feet Anatomy
Birds feet are mainly made from bones and tendons which are markedly stronger than those in the rest of the body. This allows for a soft landing. Moreover, birds only have a limited number of nerves and blood vessels in their feet.
Most, but not all birds, have four toes. In most bird species, the first toe (called the hallux) points backward, and this is made up of a toe bone called the phalanx as well as a small metatarsal.
The other toes have two, three, and four phalanges respectively, and are counted from the inside of the foot. While the fifth toe in most species has been lost to evolution, there are still some birds, like the chicken, whose fifth toe remains and serves as a defensive spur.
It’s also worth noting that some species, such as the ostrich, only have two toes, while birds like the emu or rhea only have three.
At the end of each of the bird’s toes is a claw. How this is configured largely depends on the species and its habits and behaviors.
Bird claws are made from keratin which is the same component that their beaks are made from. However, the claws are not a part of the bird’s main skeleton.
Main Types of Birds Feet
When you look at the feet of various bird species, you’ll notice that there are clear differences, and this is largely in relation to the toes. There are typically four main patterns for bird’s toes, although this doesn’t apply to birds who have less than four toes. Let’s take a look at the main layouts for birds feet.
The most common type of bird foot is the anisodactyl foot or the perching foot. Birds with these feet include various songbirds; the robin, finches, wrens, blue jay, sparrows, and other garden birds.
They have three forward-facing toes and one that points backward (hallux), which can all move independently of one another. The toes are long and slender, which allows the bird to wrap them around a branch when perching.
What’s most fascinating is that the bird has muscles in its legs and feet that automatically grip so they won’t fall, even when they’re sleeping. This is called an automatic perching mechanism, or APM for short.
Climbing feet, or to call them by their proper name, zygodactyl feet, feature two toes facing backward and two toes facing forwards. This configuration is often seen on birds like parrots, cuckoos, and woodpeckers, as well as many other arboreal species.
This setup allows the bird a better grip when climbing up trees or other vertical surfaces. Their long, curved nails improve their grip even further while their back toes provide additional support.
Parrots can be seen using their unique foot design to hold food. In fact, they will often eat this way as their toes allow for a very good grip on their food.
Birds of prey require special feet that primarily aid them when feeding. Birds such as the bald eagle and osprey have three forward-facing toes and one backward-facing toes which allows them to perch.
However, this, coupled with their sharp claws, also means that these carnivorous birds can catch and secure prey such as mice, rabbits, and other small animals.
Owls are one of the most interesting birds of prey in terms of their toes as they can fully rotate their back toe to the front in order to perch more easily. They can do this thanks to the flexible joint in their toes but no other species is capable of this.
Aquatic birds typically have webbing on their feet, and the main purpose of this is to create a wider surface area to push through the water, meaning that their toes act like fins. However, this type of foot might be ideal for swimming and paddling, but they’re not so good for walking. The only exceptions to this are birds that have partially webbed feet, like the American coot which makes them suitable for both walking and swimming. These are known as lobate feet.
Other partially webbed configurations include semipalmate feet in which the front toes are connected by a small piece of tissue.
Palmate feet are the most common type of webbed feet, and the front toes are fully connected. Most species of ducks and gulls have this configuration. However, there are also fully webbed feet where the front and rear toes are connected, known as totipalmate feet, which can be seen on birds such as the cormorant.
|Common Bird Species with Toe Configuration
|Webbed – Front toes are united (most common)
|Fully webbed – All four toes are united by ample webs
|Half-webbed – Anterior toes are joined part way by a small webbing
|Semipalmated plover, herons
|Lobed – Swimming foot with a series of lateral lobes on the toes
Some aquatic birds do not have webbed feet but instead have extremely long toes that they can spread out to form a wide surface area. This allows them to walk on soft surfaces like mud and floating plants. In fact, some birds, like the jacana are so adept at this that they’ve earned themselves the nickname lily trotter.
These birds, including the heron and the stork, typically have longer legs which allow them to wade through the water. You may see them standing on one foot to retain heat as their long limbs lose heat more rapidly.
Flightless birds require a different type of foot since they need something to aid in walking and running as well as offering support.
Birds like the cassowary, emu, and rhea all have three toes that point forwards; these are known as tridactyl feet. They enable the bird to run more quickly, but interestingly, not all flightless birds are configured this way.
The ostrich is the only bird to be didactyl, meaning it has just two forward-facing toes. The larger of these toes is designed to support the weight of the bird while the smaller one ensures good balance. The lack of unnecessary extra toes means that the ostrich can move more quickly when evading attackers.
Some birds have scratching feet which feature three toes facing forward and one facing backward. These include species such as the chicken, the wild turkey, the quail, and the pheasant.
On the end of their toes, these birds have very sharp claws, which they use to dig in the ground, allowing them to search for food such as seeds and insects. However, they’ll also use these claws for fighting.
Why Don’t Birds Feet Freeze in Cold Weather?
When human feet get extremely cold, it’s not unusual for us to feel pain and this is because of the way our feet are designed to include lots of nerve endings; 7000 to be exact! However, this isn’t the case with birds since they don’t have a lot of nerves in the feet and very few pain receptors.
If you were to touch a bird’s foot after it had been hopping around in the snow, it would be cold. But this isn’t actually an issue for our feathered friends since their blood vessels are placed very close together in the feet. The result of this is much faster circulation meaning that blood doesn’t have the chance to get cold as it never stays in one place for very long.
You might also wonder why their feet don’t stick to metal feeders or perches, and that’s because of their lack of moisture. Moreover, bird feet are made largely of bones and tendons, which don’t get as cold as tissue or fluid.
In some bird species, like gulls that spend a lot of time on ice, blood is recirculated to keep warm. While the blood in the extremities is pretty cold, it’ll move back up through the body, reaching core temperature again before being sent back to the feet to maintain a comfortable temperature.
How Don’t Birds Get Electrocuted When Sitting on Power Lines?
Birds are often seen sitting on electrical cables. In fact, this is such a common sight that it’s inspired many cartoons; the scene in Dumbo with the crows and Disney’s short animated movie; Birds on a Wire.
But when you think about it, it seems to defy logic and physics since touching these electrical wires would surely result in a human sustaining an electric shock. So why isn’t that the case for birds?
Well, it’s all to do with electrical currents or the lack thereof when birds sit on wires. For electricity to move, it needs a closed circuit. Moreover, there needs to be some contact with the ground for the current to flow. When you power the electrical devices in your home, the electrons come from the power station, through wiring and cables, into your device, and then back into the ground.
When birds are sitting on an electrical cable, there’s no connection which means electricity cannot flow into their bodies. However, if they were to touch a second power line at the same time, this could complete the circuit, and the bird would be electrocuted.
Where do Birds Feet Go When in Flight?
If you’ve ever traveled by plane or even watched an aircraft landing and taking off, you’ll notice that the wheels retract inside the belly of the plane once it takes off. This is to make the aircraft more streamlined, therefore making flight smoother and easier.
It’s the same for birds. Having a pair of feet hanging below them would interrupt their flight, so birds will tuck them into the feathers under their tummies.
What’s interesting is that bird’s legs have an upper and lower bone, and these are almost equal in length. This allows the birds to neatly hinge the joint and tuck the legs up so that they’re almost invisible during flight.
Why Do So Many Pigeons Have Missing Toes & Feet?
If you’ve ever closely observed a pigeon, you may have noticed that these birds often have a toe or even an entire foot missing. There are actually several reasons for this, some of which are very alarming.
One of the most shocking reasons that pigeons lose digits is because they become entangled by human hair. Once the hair wraps around a digit, it gets tighter and tighter, restricting blood flow and causing the digit to fall off.
This has been seen in urban pigeons, most notably in Paris, and it seems to take place in areas where there are a lot of hair salons.
Before the discovery of the problems relating to human hair, scientists believed that infection was the leading cause of digit loss in pigeons. While it is a concern, it’s got nothing on the human hair phenomenon we’re seeing in city-dwelling birds.
Pigeons may contract infections when they walk in unclean areas, and the risk of this is usually higher in birds who have an existing injury to the foot where bacteria can enter. As well as missing toes, these infections may cause swelling and deformation of the foot.
In cities, business owners are keen to keep pigeons away thinking that they are unclean and seeing them as pests. In order to stop them from pooping on their properties, these business owners will use chemical deterrents, which could cause deformation.
A lot of urban pigeons will walk across chemicals from things like cars which can cause issues. This is such a concerning issue since it can cause reproductive problems, which means more and more baby pigeons are being born with congenital deformities.