Go Cuckoo for Bird Beaks

May 4, 2015
May 4th is Bird Day and we've got birds on the brain. With spring’s songbird chirps in the air, it’s the perfect time to appreciate these wonderful creatures. Birds are invaluable to our ecosystems. They help pollinate plants, keep insect and rodent populations down, and are natural cleaning crews. Our feathered friends are amazing, but their smiles are especially fascinating. Let’s take a look:

All bird beaks are different.

Just like our smiles, each bird’s beak is unique. Raptors have sharp, hooked beaks to help catch and kill prey. Geese have broader, serrated beaks to help them tear grass. Woodpeckers have long, pointed beaks that help them drill into tree trunks.

Birds don’t have teeth.

About 116 million years ago, birds developed a gene that stopped them from growing teeth. So, they use their beaks to crack nuts, catch insects, or tear and rip their prey.

Birds “brush” their beaks.

Against branches, that is. Despite not having teeth, birds know the value of maintaining a healthy smile. They meticulously clean their beaks by “feaking”—wiping the sides of their beaks along their perch.

Bird beaks are tools.

We know our teeth aren't tools, but beaks are essential for preening feathers and cooling off on warm days. Birds like woodpeckers, gulls, ducks and crows use their beaks to find food.

Bird tongues come in all shapes and sizes.

Each species of bird has a unique tongue designed to help them eat their favorite treats. Birds that eat nectar, like lorikeets, have a brush-like tip that helps them feed on flowers. Parrots use their tongues to manipulate food and objects. And flamingos have little hairs on their tongues to help filter their food. Our tongues help us talk, taste and swallow.

Bird spit is a delicacy.

That’s right! The swiftlet, an Asian bird, uses it’s saliva to bind it’s nest together. In parts of Asia, they make bird’s nest soup from swiftlet nests. The saliva gives the soup it’s desired, gelatinous texture. Our saliva isn't a delicacy, but it does help rinse away harmful bacteria.

Bird beaks change with age.

Unlike our baby teeth, which are replaced with adult teeth, birds keep the beak they’re born with. However, it changes as they get older. Many birds hatch with light colored skin around their beaks. It helps their parents know where to put food and darkens as they get older. Some bird beaks change shape as they age. Flamingo chicks, for example, hatch with straight beaks that turn downward when they’re 10-12 weeks old.

If you’d like to learn more about bird beaks or see them up close, visit your local zoo. They've got flocks! What’s your favorite bird and what do you like most about them? P.S. A very special thanks to Susan Burchardt, Raptor Keeper at the Woodland Park Zoo for all of her help with this post.