Written By: Sarah Girton
Have you ever thought about all the different kinds of beaks in the bird world? It’s not usually something one might dwell on, but if you think about it, there are a ton of different beak designs out there! Each one serves a unique purpose based on the birds’ preferred food source.
One of the biggest beaks belong to (no surprise!) the toucans! Toucans use their huge beaks to eat mainly fruit, although they have been observed eating insects and nestlings. Both are a great added source of protein.
Comparatively, one of the smallest beaks in nature belongs to the Bee Hummingbird, who is also the smallest known bird on earth! Their little beaks help them to drink nectar from flowers which, in my opinion, is just about the most adorable thing an animal could possibly eat.
It’s also worth mentioning Charles Darwin’s studies on Galapagos Finches. He noted that finches from different islands had slightly different beak shapes to accommodate their local food sources. According to The Harvard Gazette:
Using modern genetic analyses, [researchers at Harvard Medical School] found a molecule that regulates genes involved in shaping the beaks of Darwin finches. “Calmodulin is a protein that binds and activates certain enzymes, which triggers a signal that eventually turns specific genes on or off,” explains Arkhat Abzhanov, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard. These signals alter the behavior of cells responsible for beak sculpturing.
In other words, over enough time, beak shapes adapt to the birds’ needs.
Now let’s take a closer look at some beak shapes of our local Colorado birds!
Nuthatches like this Red Breasted Nuthatch have a long, pointed bill for pecking around trees. It allows them to pry open bark where delicious grubs and other insects might be hiding out! It’s so fun to watch them hop up and down trees as they search for food. Additionally, as their name suggests, they also love nuts and seeds. Their name comes from the fact that the bird will wedge a piece of food into a crevice and them use it’s sharp beak to pry it open. Clever little bird!
I certainly don’t want to be redundant in talking about finches, but as these guys are so common at feeders I feel it’s important to mention them! House finches are primarily granivorous, feeding on nuts and seeds. Looking at that stout little beak, that is an easy deduction! I know my house finch visitors are especially fond of sunflower seeds.
Corvids are the opportunistic omnivores of the bird world. Most corvids, like crows, jays, and magpies, possess a good all-purpose beak that can be used to tear, crush, and peck. This makes it a bit easier to find food, as they have so many more options than other birds. Anything from fruit, nuts, seeds, insects, to even eggs and nestlings are fair game. And while it is definitely sad to see a bird going after another birds young, just remember that it is the natural way of things, and that bird has a family to feed too!
Definitely one of the most adorable little birds, with their plump body and small pointed beak. Chickadees, like the Black-capped Chickadee pictured above, love to feast on small insects…either plucking them right from the air or picking them off of a tree. As winter comes around and bugs are less plentiful, they are more open to other food sources like seeds. If you have feeders out though, they are frequent visitors all year round. Seed cylinders and loose seed blends like our No-Mess NM are one of their faves.
Most woodpeckers have a sharp beak for pecking around on trees as they search for insects. Lots of insects and grubs take to hiding beneath tree bark where it is cooler and more damp. But there is no hiding from a hungry woodpecker! And did you know? The fast drumming that you hear is not a woodpecker searching for food; it is either an announcement to stay away from their territory, or a call to find a potential mate. They also use that sharp beak to excavate nesting cavities. Dead trees are a very easy material to carve into.
Red-tailed hawks, and all birds of prey, have a sharp curved beak. These birds are very strictly predatory, hunting down small animals like rodents, reptiles, and even other birds. The sharp curved beak tip allows them to tear off pieces of meat. This ability especially comes in handy while these birds are feeding their nestlings.
Aside from all the different ways that birds use their beaks to eat, they also use them for preening, defense, display, and even strengthening relationships! I’d like to end with a video from YouTuber Lesley the Bird Nerd, who goes into detail about mutual preening. Certainly can’t do that without a good beak!