Birds Teeth: Fact or Fiction?

Do birds have teeth?

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When you think about the mouth of a bird, you imagine a beak. And rightly so because that’s something that all birds have in common. But have you ever heard someone talking about bird teeth? Surely that’s nothing more than a crazy rumor, right?

In the simplest terms, it is just a myth. Birds do not have teeth. However, some birds have something that’s pretty close to a tooth, while others have serrations that look similar to teeth. Let’s find out more.

Do Birds Have Teeth?

Birds of prey, that have something called a tomial tooth
Birds of Prey Have a Tomial Tooth which is a Extra Protrusion on the Beak Used for Breaking into Prey

Birds do not have teeth. Where humans and mammals use teeth to grind up their food before it goes to the stomach, birds eat in a different way. They have a muscular organ known as the gizzard which is in the stomach and is used to grind up food in the same way as we would use our teeth. They actually swallow their food whole.

But there are birds that have serrations on the beak that are similar to teeth. They aren’t used to grind up food but instead help the bird to hold onto whatever they’re trying to eat. You might think of these ‘teeth’ as a type of grip on what would otherwise be a smooth beak. Moreover, these ‘teeth’ known as tomia, can be used to help break through the shell of seeds. Geese, mergansers, and the tooth-billed bowerbird are just some examples of birds that have this feature.

Tomia are not made from the same material as teeth. In fact, they are made from cartilage and are nowhere near as durable as human teeth. They do not have enamel, the protective coating that we have on our teeth.

There are other birds, mostly birds of prey, that have something called a tomial tooth. Again this is not a tooth in the way that we might be familiar with but rather an extra protrusion on the beak used for breaking into prey. The bird, for example a falcon, will catch its prey with its feet and then use the tomial tooth to bite into the vertebrae, killing the animal.

A tomial tooth should not be confused with the sharp point at the tip of the bird’s beak as they actually sit behind it. When you look at the beak, the tomial tooth will appear as a second protrusion.

What Happened to Birds’ Teeth?

Skeleton Head Illustration of a Ichthyornis, a Extinct Toothed Seabird

According to research, birds only developed beaks around 100 million years ago. Before this, they are believed to have had teeth. So why did they evolve this way?

Birds’ main ancestor is the dinosaur, and we all know that they had plenty of teeth, but over time, birds lost theirs. Even though scientists have proven that birds still possess the genes required to be able to grow teeth.

When we look at fossilized remains of creatures like the ichthyornis, we can clearly see that at the back of the mouth the animal had teeth, while the front portion was a beak. It is thought that the loss of teeth and the formation of the beak happened almost simultaneously with the loss of protective enamel happening around 116 million years ago while dentin (the compound that makes up teeth) was lost around 101 million years ago.

There are some people that speculate that the reason birds lost their teeth was to make them lighter in order to make flight easier. However, this theory is widely discredited since there were plenty of toothed birds that could fly. It doesn’t make sense that every bird species would evolve this way so there is currently no known explanation as to what happened to birds teeth other than we know that they no longer exist.

How Can Birds Eat and Digest Food without Teeth?

The anatomy of birds is so very different from our own, and we have to keep this in mind when we study them.

When it comes to eating, birds do not have teeth in their mouths which they can use to chew and mash up their food. However, some birds have those tomia and tomial teeth we discussed earlier which allow them to break into hard foods or bite into their prey.

For the most part, birds will swallow their food whole and this is then moved down into the digestive system, starting at the stomach. Just before this is the gizzard which is a muscular organ used to grind food up ready for digestion. You might think that swallowing food whole would be tricky, but for birds that eat foods like insects, their sticky saliva makes it slide down with ease.

However, there are also some birds that have a small pouch in the throat where they will store their food if they’re not quite ready to digest it!

Not everything that gets mashed up in the gizzard will stay inside the bird for long. Since they swallow their food whole, lots of inedible items end up in the gizzard, including bones, feathers, and fur. However, this intelligent organ holds these and forms them into a pellet which the bird can then cough up.

Why Do Baby Birds Have an Egg Tooth?

Why do baby birds have an egg tooth?
Egg Tooth Visible on a Chick

Did you know that when hatching out of its egg, a baby bird may spend hours or even days chipping away at the shell. They might not look like much but bird egg shells are super strong and a soft baby beak isn’t going to do much to get through them.

But that’s where the egg tooth comes in. This is a small bump right at the tip of the beak that helps the chick chip its way through the shell. This isn’t something that’ll stay with the bird throughout its life, however, since the egg tooth will either wear away or fall off before the bird is more than a couple of weeks old.

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