What a Beak Says About the Bird

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

If you spend any time observing birds, you have certainly noticed that they all have beaks. However, what we characterize as a beak can differ quite drastically from species to species. Why is that? It is dependent on their life history traits. Think of what that bird eats and how their beak can be best shaped to help them accomplish that. You could sort beak type by what the bird eats, or how they do so.  

Let's break down some beak styles by what they help birds accomplish! 

1. Chiseling

If you need to chisel through wood to find insects and create your nests, you need a beak that allows you to do so! Woodpeckers have beaks with chisel like tips. If you've ever wondered how they don't get splitting headaches - woodpeckers have evolved to have a special system to protect their brains. Unlike humans who have a liquid-filled case surrounding their brains, woodpeckers have strong muscles tightly cradling their brains to help protect them from injury while hammering into a hard tree. You can read our full blog on fun facts about woodpeckers here.

Pileated Woodpecker. Photo by Leanne LeBlanc. 

2. Cracking 

If you eat seeds, you need to be able to crack them open. Birds like grosbeaks have beaks made for just that - hence the name 'grosbeak'. Their large beaks help them to break open the shells of seeds that make up their diet. 

Rose Breasted Grosbeak. Photo by Shayna Hartley. 

3. Catching

What if you don't drill for bugs - but prefer to catch them? Then you need a different beak style! There are many birds that rely on insects as a main source of food. Birds like warblers have noticeably tweezer-like beaks that can grab an unsuspecting insect with precision. The beak would also look different for aerial insectivores, such as swallows. If you are trying to catch a bug midflight you want a wider, flattened beak for the best possible success rate. 

Yellow Warbler. Photo by Heather Kerrison. 

4. Dabbling

You may have heard the expression ‘dabbling ducks’. This refers to ducks that feed at the surface of the water or tipping head first in. While doing this they are grazing on plants, vegetation, insects, and larvae. To accomplish this, you want a wide, flat beak that can take in the water and capture the desired food within in. 

Mallard Duck. Photo by Heather Kerrison. 

5. Tearing 

Meat eating birds, including Shrikes and raptors, have sharp hooked beaks that enable them to pierce, pluck, and pull. 

Northern Shrike. Photo by Leanne Leblanc. 

There are beak variations to match most diets - each both interesting and necessary. Evolution is not intentional, but rather a result of what works. Birds that were most suited to find and eat their main food sources, survived and reproduced. Over generations, traits are selected for. It's amazing to see how natural selection has shaped characteristics across species. 

Next time you see a new bird see if you can guess their diet based on their beak!



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