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It’s in your nature: More on bird beaks

In a previous column I focused on some of the various shapes and uses of bird beaks. Bird beaks can also referred to as bills. Don’t be surprised as I progress through this column that I use them interchangeably.

Beaks have many uses, most of us are familiar with them being used to obtain food, and certainly that is the main function. I will try to point out another use or two and also use a variety of photos to acquaint you with the beak parts and certainly their wide variety.

Bird beaks are made of a tough keratin layer produced by the epidermis over the mandibles. On almost all bird beaks you will find a pair of nasal openings called the nares. Those nares vary in shapes and in the swiftest of flyers, like peregrine falcons, are designed a bit differently because of their diving speeds. Falcons, diving at nearly 200 mph, actually have a tiny (baffle) in the nares which biologists believe slows the air into the respiratory system, allowing them to breathe properly in their dives.

Actually, the beaks are an extension of the upper and lower mandibles. The upper bill is rather unusual because a bird can move it up and down. We can only move our lower mandible (jaw). The birds’ lower mandible needs only weak muscles to move it down, gravity does much of the work. The beaks of birds are modified in so many ways depending on the type of feeding that they do. But all birds use their beaks for preening.

Preening is the second most important function of bird beaks. Birds’ upper mandible is almost always a tiny bit longer than the lower, which aids in this process. Preening is done many times throughout a day and serves to properly align their feathers for flight and protection. It helps remove parasites such as mites, and also to waterproof their feathers. All birds have a gland at the base of their tail that produces an oil they use to help coat their feathers. Keep in mind many birds have over 20,000 feathers covering them.

So food gathering, preening, courtship and even defense are all uses of the wide array of bird beaks. Get out there and notice that variety, and enjoy. …

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: Bird singing is normally done before and during breeding season, however, on a 26-degree November morning last week, I listened to a bird singing “his head off” for at least an hour. The bird that often sings in winter is a ____. A. house wren, B. Carolina wren, C. Baltimore oriole, D. wood thrush, E. yellow-billed cuckoo.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: Besides goldenrod, there are indeed silverrod plants as well.

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

This “bad hair day” belted kingfisher has a heavy pointed beak to catch fish and to excavate nest cavities in steam side banks.
The beaks of birds have varied uses but most of the same structures. This great egret's pointed, spear-like beak's color also helps distinguish from a snowy egret. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
This male cardinal displays its large seed cracking beak, but also the slight overlap of its upper mandible. This enables preening to be more efficient.
Most raptors have a cere, a waxy covering at the base of the beak. This yellow cere of a juvenile broad-winged hawk is not as pronounced as ceres on rock doves (pigeons.)
The awe inspiring bald eagle's beak is designed for tearing open a fish and this photo clearly shows its nare as well.
This red-eyed vireo's beak is adapted to plucking caterpillars from leaves and it too displays the slightly longer upper mandible for preening.
Birds preen for many reasons, including parasite removal. This roseate spoonbill uses its unique beak to preen oil from the gland at the base of its tail.
Woodpeckers have feathers covering their nares on their beaks. Obviously an adaptation to help avoid wood chips from blocking their breathing openings. This is a pileated woodpecker, our largest local species.
Beaks have varied uses and thus various specialized shapes. This white ibis probes the mucky bottoms for its aquatic food.
Another structure of beaks is the nail found at the tip of almost all ducks, geese, or swans. This American wigeon displays its different colored nail quite clearly.
Even though most birds' upper mandible (beak) protrudes “a bit” more than the lower, there are exceptions. The black skimmer uses the elongated lower half of its beak to “skim” fish from the water's surface as it flies just above it.