A Basketful of Beaks #1

A Basketful of Beaks #1

When we think of birds, what first comes to mind are their feathers and their wings. But just as noticeable are the beaks. Beaks are super important, and come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, their variety helped Darwin come up with the idea of natural selection in his Origin of Species, when he studied the different beaks of the different “finches” of the different Galapagos Islands (the word “finches” is in quotes because these are not true finches).

Darwin’s finches, as drawn by John Gould for The Voyage of the Beagle. In the public domain.

What are beaks made out of? Well, there’s some bone. You’ve probably seen some bird skulls, and you can recognize them as birds because of the beak bones, one for the upper and the lower parts. But beaks are also covered by keratin, the same stuff in our fingernails. (Keratin is also the same stuff in rhinoceros horns, which means that the murder of rhinos for their horns – supposedly a substance with virtually magic powers – is the murder of rare animals for the equivalent of a pile of fingernails.) Anyway, the keratin in beaks – like the keratin in our fingernails and toenails – constantly regrows. Sometimes birds even need to file down their beaks. If you see them “wiping” their beaks on a branch, this may be what they’re doing.

Toca Toucan, the largest toucan. By Basa Roland, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52806300

Perhaps the world’s best known beak belongs to Toucan Sam, the mascot of Kellogg’s breakfast cereal, Froot Loops. A real toucan is shown above, with a beak so large you may be wondering how it manages to fly. Apparently, despite the great size of these beaks, they don’t weigh much. According to Wikipedia: “Despite its size, the toucan’s bill is very light, being composed of bone struts filled with spongy tissue of keratin between them, which take on the structure of a biofoam.[6] The bill has forward-facing serrations resembling teeth, which historically led naturalists to believe that toucans captured fish and were primarily carnivorous; today it is known that they eat mostly fruit” (their love of fruit makes them a suitable mascot for Froot Loops), The toucan also uses this beak to scare off other birds and to raid the nests of small birds deep in trees.

Rhinoceros hornbill, female catching a peanut. Photo by Thomas Quine, creative commons 2

Another famous bill belongs to the hornbill, an example above, with a thingy called a casque on top of the beak. Rhinoceros hornbills are devoted to each other; when they mate, the female goes into a hole in the trunk of a tree and the male protects her and the chicks by walling her in with a structure made out of mud. He feeds her, and the chicks when they hatch, through a small hole in the wall. The casques seem to be used for fighting among males, but it’s hard to discern much utility in them.

Rosease Spoonbill, uploaded by user Mwanner, Myakka River State Park, Sarasota County, Florida, GNU Free documentation license

For some species, the raison d’être for the beak’s shape is more obvious. The roseate spoonbill wades in water, moving its beak from side to side in the water, feeding. Whenever something touches its beak – fish, insect, whatever – the beak snaps shut. I guess it’s rather like a Venus fly trap.

Gila Woodpecker. By Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. Transfer was stated to be made by User:JJ55., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3249300

Woodpeckers use their beaks all the time! They pound into trees (or cacti, preferred by gila woodpeckers) to search for insects and grubs. Whether they’re hammering on wood or on cacti, they are hard, nay, impossible to ignore. The sound may be giving you a headache, but have you ever wondered how come the woodpeckers don’t get headaches? Their brains are cushioned and the strain energy is distributed around their entire bodies. Ever wonder, too, why they hammer for a bit, then stop, then hamer some more? It’s because they need to take breaks to keep their brains from overheating. See Wikipedia.

American white pelican. By Frank Schultenberg, Creative Commons 3

Pelicans augment the utility of their beaks with the addition of a throat pouch, also known as a gular pouch. Apparently the skin hangs from two bones in the lower beak. Also, take a look at the hook at the end of the upper beak. That’s used to “nick” fish and to keep the slimy creatures from getting away. Pelicans’ bills and their pouches may change color according to the season and whether or not they’re mating. Finally, pelicans have among the largest beaks in the world.

Ruby-throated hummingbird sticking out its tongue. Henry Quadling, Creative Commons 4.0

Hummingbirds may be the smallest group of birds, but for their size, they’ve got a lot of beak. They are obviously designed to get down into flowers for sweet nectar, but they also have tongues, as do the rest of the birds.

There are so many more cool beaks and beak uses out there, but I believe in the magic number 7, in other words, that’s about how many pictures a human can tolerate before getting bored. So I will save them for a future Crow Nickel.

Thanks for reading!

She was the Great Mother Bird of all of us. She knew that her large, beautiful land, her home, was breaking apart and that the new smaller lands could be very different from the place she called home. In her wisdom she let her many chicks — she thought of them as chicks, even though many were grown — come to her in breeding pairs, to choose which gifts they wanted in order to survive. Hunters of the Feather, by Victoria Grossack

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