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It’s in your nature: Bird bills and beaks

Birds haven’t cornered the market on having beaks, but for the most part they are certainly the most numerous beaked animals.

Beaks do occur in animals like turtles, some whales, or even platypuses, but my focus today is bird beaks. Bills, beaks, rostrums are all used correctly to identify the birds upper and lower appendages on their heads.

For the balance of this column, I’ll refer to them as bills.

Birds’ bills essentially become “their hands” because their upper appendages, in flying birds, are developed into wings and the lower appendages, the feet or used for walking or grasping/perching.

Bills come in a variety of shapes and sizes and have a multitude of uses. They are bony structures growing from the bird skull and have a fingernail-like covering of keratin on them. This covering is replaced after wearing away through use.

The weakest mandible is the lower mandible having the least muscle to aid its use. And uses, wow. Bills can be used for chiseling, spearing, probing, tearing, drinking, scooping up fish, grasping fish, etc., etc.

Most people don’t realize how important bills are for preening their feathers and that will be discussed in a later column. My goal today in the first of two columns on bills, is to show you a number of bird species and their specialized bills. I hope you find it informative and interesting.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: True or False: Toucans, from South America, eat fruit and have very large, lightweight bills because they are lazy and try to move little to reach their food.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: Bald eagles reach maturity at age 5 and can begin breeding then.

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

The black skimmer's lower bill has adapted to be much longer than the top to allow it to fly just above the water of a bay “skimming” the surface to snap up small fish. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
A wood stork found near Florida's Everglades has a 10-inch heavy mud-piercing bill to thrust into more dense mud/silt to locate its food.
Ibises, like this white ibis, have long, thin curved bills to probe for and catch invertebrates in softer silt.
Woodpeckers, like this red-bellied woodpecker at my suet, use their hardened bills to chisel into trees to find food and excavate their nest cavities.
This common snipe, photographed at Beltzville Lake, uses its surprisingly long bill to probe mud and silt for worms and insects.
Warblers, like this chestnut-sided warbler, have thin, pointed bills to pluck caterpillars and bugs from leaf surfaces.
A rose-breasted grosbeak uses its huge bill to crush seeds and insects, of course.
A belted kingfisher has a stout, pointed bill to grab small fish as it dives headfirst into the water. But this adaptation also allows it to dig its nest cavity in stream banks.
A double-crested cormorant has serrations along its bill to use as gripping forceps to hold onto the slippery fish it pursues under water.
A roseate spoonbill found in and near the Everglades certainly is appropriately named. It uses its unusually shaped bill lined with sensitive hairs to “swish” through the water to catch shrimp or underwater insects.
Hummingbirds, like this ruby-throated hummingbird, need their long, thin bill and very long tongue to reach the energy-rich nectar of tubular flowers. What you may not know is that they also use this bill to snatch gnats and small insects that are also attracted to those flowers.