Bird Beaks - Why Are There So Many Different Shapes?

common hoopoe has a ground probing bird beak or bill to extract insectsThere are many different types of bird beaks or bills, but why?

Birds have evolved a great variety of bills or adapted to their varied food habits. All of them, however, arise in fundamentally the same way.

Bird beaks are essentially a compact layer of epidermal cells (horny sheath) molded around the bony core of each mandible, the upper and lower jaws.

In nearly all birds, unlike mammals, both upper and lower jaws can move.

Below are some examples of different kinds of bird beaks and their uses.

Beaks of Passerines

  1. Seed Eaters: Grosbeaks, finches - have short, thick bills that can crush hard seed
  2. Foliage Gleaners: Warblers, orioles, vireos - have longer, thin bills that can reach farther to pick an insect off a leaf
  3. Ground Probers: Starling - pointed, thin bill that goes into the ground easily
  4. Flying Insect Eaters: Swallows, flycatchers, nighthawks - all have flat bills with a broad base, an insect-catching design.
Types of bird beaks or bills

Beaks of Raptors

Raptors such as hawks, falcons and accipiters have sharply hooked bills for tearing apart animal flesh.

Raptor beak is sharlpy hooked like Peregrine Falcon

Herons and Egrets

Wading birds like herons and egrets have long bills enable them to make sudden, long jabs into the water for fish, frogs, crayfish, and snakes.


  • Curlews - use their long, downcurvedCurlew bill is downcurved for probing bills to reach deep into the water for mollusks and small crabs and to probe in the mud for worms and insects.
  • Godwits & Dowitchers - with long, up-turned bills, are more exclusively probers, whose rapid head jabs in the mud give rise to comparison with sewing machines.

brown pelican uses its bill and pouch like a fish netBrown Pelican - Widens the lower mandible to enclose a fish in its pouch (like a fish net) upon diving, which is trapped when the upper mandible shuts.

When the pelican resurfaces, it points its bill down to drain the pouch, then points it up and back to swallow the fish.

American Woodcock - uses its long straight bill to get worms out of the ground. The tip of its upper mandible is flexible, and when underground can move away from the lower mandible and then close on a worm like tweezers.

Hummingbird bills are very specialized for extracting nectar from flowers.

Bird Beak Shapes Tell Us What & How They Eat

Related Bird Anatomy Pages:

Along with bird beaks, learn about other bird characteristics, including:

Feathers, Bird Flight, Bird Song, Bird Reproduction, and Bird Skeletons.

Photo of Common Hoopoe and Brown Pelican courtesy of Koshy Koshy and Dick Daniels, respectively.

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