Top 10 Crazy Bird Beaks

Whether it is a beak or a bill, the mandibles of birds provide a fascinating insight into their feeding behavior. We've selected 5 species from the U.S. and 5 species from around the world to be in our Top 10.  The American Flamingo provides the segue between the two, as it is sometimes reported in Florida but is much more common further south.

Beaks do provide some very interesting topics of scientific discussion.  Visit George Petrides blog post to learn a little about Divergent and Convergent Evolution. 

10.  Wood Stork
The large, highly social Wood Stork has along, sensitive bill that allows it to forage by feel in murky marsh water. Wood Storks disperse widely after breeding, and in some years when nesting failures occur, they move north of their normal breeding range in large numbers.

wood storkPhotograph © Greg Lavaty

Wood Storks are thought to begin breeding at age four. Their success at raising young depends largely on water conditions. Evaporation draws water down, concentrating prey and making foraging easier. If rains come early, prey will not be concentrated and the young may starve.

Not the prettiest bird but the beak is remarkably well adapted.

9. Black Skimmer
Black Skimmers literally skim over the water as they feed, using their unique bill shape to help them scoop up small fish.

black skinner
Photograph © Sam Crowe

8. Long-billed Curlew
The Long-billed Curlew is unusual in several regards. It is the largest shorebird in North America, and it breeds in shortgrass plains rather than along shorelines. At almost eight inches long, the Long-billed Curlew’s bill is certainly one of its most remarkable features. It probes the ground for crustaceans, also eating insects.

Photograph © Sam Crowe


7.  American White Pelican
The American White Pelican is a large swimming bird with a very large and long orange beak. A large pouch of orange skin is present on the lower bill and is used for foraging. The pelican’s plumage is white, with black flight feathers visible when its wings are extended.  The bill can hold up to 3 gallons of water.  The American White Pelican sometimes hunts in unison with other pelicans to "herd" fish into a concentrated area.

american white pelican
Photograph © Greg Lavaty.


6.  Roseate Spoonbill
The Roseate Spoonbill is not a flamingo, although it is sometimes mistakenly identified as one.  It uses its long bill, with a flat tip to sweep back and forth in shallow water in search of small fish and invertebrates.

roseate spoonbill
Photograph © Sam Crowe

5.  American (Caribbean) Flamingo
The bill of the American Flamingo is designed to allow the bill to sweep back and forth with the head almost upside down.  Flamingos are filter feeders, using an adapted bill design to feed in a way similar to the baleen whales.

American Caribbean Flamingo

4.  Rhinoceros Hornbill
The large Rhinoceros Hornbill (up to 4 feet in length) is found in the Malay Peninsula, Singapore and parts of Thailand.  The  strange-looking extension to the top of the bill is called a casque.  It is hollow and thought to amplify the bird's call.  

Rhinoceros HornbillPhotograph © J.P. Bennett.

3. Sword-billed Hummingbird
The Sword-billed Hummingbird is found  in the northern Andes Mountains. It is the only bird with a beak longer than its body. The beak is 3 to 4 inches long, which allows the bird to consume nectar from passion flowers, fuchsias and other flowers where the long beak comes in especially handy.

Sword-billed HummingbirdPhotograph © Francesco.

2.  Toucans
We did not select a particular toucan to highlight here, they are all spectacular.   The bills, while very large, are light weight and strong.  Toucans are amazingly dexterous with their large bills and often pass fruit back and forth to each other.  A group of small to medium-sized toucans are known as Aracaris..  


Toucans are found in Mexico, south through Central America and into South America.

1.  Shoebill Stork
Not sure if this is the most specialized bill, but it is the most intimidating.  The Shoebill Stork of east and central Africa has a beak that is about a foot long and close to 6 inches wide.  The bill is used for clattering to communicate with others of its species as well as for capturing prey.

shoebill stork
Photograph © Ueno Zoo