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Ducks And Their Teeth-Like Formations

Common Merganser showing its teeth-like serrations

Ducks are such unique and beautiful birds! Ducks are fun to watch as they dabble and dive in local waterways, and male ducks can have impressive iridescent plumage.

These popular waterbirds also have unique beaks. Watch a duck at close range or zoom in with a spotting scope and you might notice another interesting feature. Those duck bills aren’t as flat and smooth as they appear. In fact, it looks like they have teeth!

Do ducks really have teeth? Would a duck bite hurt?

 

Key takeaways:

  • Ducks do not actually have teeth. The serrations or teeth-like objects are actually called lamellae.
  • Even though you’d think that ducks use these serrations to chew their food, they actually swallow their food whole.

 

Teeth Or Sharp Serrations?

Take a close, careful look at a duck’s bill and it sure looks like they have small sharp teeth. But are they really teeth or just the rough edge of their beak?

Although those small sharp points resemble teeth, they are actually the serrated edge of the bird’s beak. We can’t call them teeth because they don’t grow out of the bird’s jaw, nor are they made of enamel. They don’t really use them like we use our teeth, either.

Common Goldeneye's teeth

Take a closer look at this Goldeneye’s bill – there are lots of harp-looking serrations

The serrations on a duck’s beak are made of keratin, the same protein substance that their beak is made of (as well as our fingernails and rhino horns). Those serrations grow as part of the beak itself and, like teeth, they do help ducks eat.

However, while mammals use their teeth to cut, chew, and pulverize food into tiny pieces, ducks use their “teeth” in other ways. Those sharp serrations help several species grasp their food, something especially useful in their wet and slippery surroundings.

The other main way ducks use those beak serrations is for capturing food from water filtered through their beak. As a Mallard moves its bill in the water, the serrations catch tiny bits of food.

 

Dietary evolution

If ducks don’t really need normal teeth, why do they need any teeth-like structures at all? Although ducks can’t chew food, their beak serrations are still vital for feeding. The size and shape of their serrations are also related to their diets.

For example, if we take a close look at a merganser’s beak, the serrations are sharper and maybe just a little bit bigger and more noticeable than a Mallard of other dabbling duck.

Mallard

Mergansers have those sharp serrations to help them catch fish. Many ducks eat the occasional small fish but nothing close to the amount of fish that mergansers feed on. These slender ducks specialize on eating small fish and crustaceans, and their beak serrations help them grasp and hold on to their slippery prey.

Diving ducks have serrations on their strong beaks to help them grasp mollusks and crustaceans. If you have ever picked up a wet clam, imagine that mollusk covered in slimy mud and algae. It’s easy to see why diving ducks have those serrations!

Teals and other dabbling ducks have comb-like serrations that filter out tiny bits of food from mud and water. They eat things like tiny snails, bugs, other small aquatic creatures, and bits of plant matter.

 

Are Duck “Teeth” Sharp?

Most duck “teeth” aren’t that sharp but a bite from a duck would still hurt. If a Mallard nipped you, it might leave a small bruise but on rare occasions, their bites can break the skin.

Some ducks have stronger bills than you think and can bite down pretty hard. Fortunately, they don’t usually bite that hard and wild ducks won’t attack you. Duck bites happen on farms or with pet ducks. They bite when the duck feels threatened, is protecting its young, or thinks you have food in your hands.

If you do get bit by a duck, since their bills have bacteria that can cause diseases, you have to clean and disinfect it right away. To be extra sure, it would be a good idea to see a doctor.

Some other types of ducks could also cause bad bites. Although it probably wouldn’t happen, a bite from a merganser’s sharp beak would probably cause puncture wounds and cuts. Since scaups, other diving ducks, and eiders routinely use their beaks to crush mussels, they might give sharp and crushing bites.

Luckily, the only way one of these ducks could bite you is if you picked up an injured one.

 

Other “teeth” owners in the bird kingdom

Ducks aren’t the only birds with serrated beaks. It might not come as a surprise that related species also have serrations on their bills. For example, geese and swans have serrated structures that help them cut through grass and other vegetation.

Geese showing mouth

Geese have more prominent serrations, even on their tongues.

Those hard, tooth-like structures are also why these big birds can give a sharp bite! They usually bite to protect their nest or young, and even wild birds can bite you, especially birds that live on golf courses or in urban parks.

Toucans are another type of bird with sharp serrations on their beaks. Unlike ducks, their serrations look more like the metal teeth on a big saw or even some prehistoric raptor!

As befits their formidable appearance, the sharp serrations help grasp and cut into a variety of food. Although they eat a lot of fruit, these fancy tropical birds also catch and eat nestlings and various other small animals.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are penguins. Although some pictures of penguins make it look that way, these flightless birds actually have other, tooth-like structures. To prevent squid, small fish, and other slipper prey from escaping, penguins have sharp, backward pointing structures on their tongues and inside their mouths.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Do ducks have tongues?

Yes, ducks have tongues.

Do ducks chew their food?

Ducks don’t chew their food. They swallow all of their food whole.

Do ducks bite often?

Ducks are normally not aggressive, so they do not bite too often. Domestic ducks might bite when they feel threatened, ill, or when protecting their young.

Are ducks aggressive?

Ducks aren’t aggressive. However, domestic ducks can get aggressive during the breeding season or around their young.

About the Author

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O'Donnell has been focused on all things avian since the age of 7. Since then, he has helped with ornithological field work in the USA and Peru, and has guided many birding tours, especially in Costa Rica. He develops birding apps for BirdingFieldGuides and loves to write about birds, especially in his adopted country of Costa Rica.

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