Whether it is a beak or a bill, the mandibles of birds provide a fascinating insight into their feeding behavior. We’ve selected 10 species with extraordinary beaks – large, big, long – you name it – 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.
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10. Wood Stork
The large, highly social Wood Stork (Mycteria americana) has a long, sensitive bill that allows it to forage by feel in murky marsh water and mud. They prefer watery habitats, such as swamps, ponds, and different wetlands.
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. They are easy to identify by their black and white wings and quite a unique head.
They are similar to Europe’s White Stork (Ciconia ciconia), who shares a similar plumage, but the European version has a bit more laid-back bill.
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
The Black Skimmer’s (Rynchops niger) one of the most distinguishing features is its strong, uneven bill. The lower mandible is longer whereas the upper mandible is about two-thirds the size of the lower one. These birds literally skim over the water as they feed.
The lower part of the bill is fixed and used to plow the water for prey. When it comes into contact with one, the upper mandible, which is hinged, snaps shut and traps it. Their ability to feel their prey with their bill is also why they are also able to hunt in low light, at dawn and dusk, and sometimes even at night.
8. Long-billed Curlew
The Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus) 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. They use their long beak to probe the ground for crustaceans and also eats insects.
This species also has an interesting parenting strategy. Once the chicks hatch, they have to get their food on their own. Similar to the adults, the chicks probe the ground with their long bills. However, their bills are noticeably shorter and straighter.
7. American White Pelican
The American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) is a large swimming bird with white plumage and black flight feathers. It has a very large and long orange beak that is flat at the top.
During the breeding season, breeding adults grow a yellowish or orangish plate on the upper mandible of the bill. A large pouch of orange skin, which can hold up to 3 gallons of water, is present on the lower bill and is used for foraging.
They forage by dipping their bills into the water and scooping prey into the pouch. At night, they locate their prey by touch, whereas during the day, they probably locate it visually. The American White Pelican sometimes hunts in unison with other pelicans to “herd” fish into a concentrated area.
There are some other pelican species as well, such as the Australian Pelican or the Great White Pelican, which has made its way to Europe as well.
6. Roseate Spoonbill
The Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) is not a flamingo, although it is sometimes mistakenly identified as one. It has a long bill with a flat tip that resembles a spoon.
You may see it slowly wading in shallow waters, sweeping its bill back and forth, upper and lower mandibles slightly apart as it feels around for prey. They eat small fish, such as minnows, crustaceans, and other aquatic invertebrates, sometimes also some plant material.
It is worth noting that spoonbill chicks don’t have that distinct bill right after hatching. Their bills start to flatten after about a week and will reach their full size in about 39 days.
5. American (Caribbean) Flamingo
American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) are filter feeders that forage with their heads upside down underwater. Their bill is highly specialized for that. The lower part of their bill is larger and fixed, whereas the upper mandible is smaller and able to move. Both the upper and lower mandibles have lamellae structures.
These structures are similar to the comb-like structure whales have, which helps them filter food by sweeping their bills back and forth. Their diet depends on how exactly their bill is structured and what can be filtered. Overall, it includes small crustaceans and fish, worms, insects, grass, seeds, and algae.
Adults also participate in something called “bill fencing”, where they bite each other’s bills to defend their territory and protect their young.
4. Rhinoceros Hornbill
The large Rhinoceros Hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros), who is up to 4 feet in length, is found in the Malay Peninsula, Singapore and parts of Thailand. These birds have a large, slightly downcurved bill that is naturally white but gets stained orange and yellow over time. They mostly feed on fruit, but occasionally also on invertebrates and small vertebrates.
Now, on to the interesting part. 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.
They take at least five years to develop, which is also when the birds reach sexual maturity. This indicates that the casque is probably used in courtship and other social interactions. Females choose their mates based on courtship displays, which also include loud calling and dueting.
The Great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) deserves an honorary mention as well. These birds live in southeast Asia birds, and unfortunately, are in a vulnerable position.
3. Sword-billed Hummingbird
The Sword-billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) is found in the northern Andes Mountains. It is the only bird with a beak longer than its body. They have a thin and straight bill 3-4 inches long and specialize in extracting nectar from flowers that have long corollas, such as passion flowers, fuchsias, and others.
Although its bill gives certain advantages when it comes to feeding, it also has some disadvantages.
Birds usually use their bills for preening, but since the Sword-billed Hummingbird’s bill is so long, they have to use their feet to scratch themselves. They also angle their bill upwards when they perch to reduce the strain on their neck and improve balance.
Be it a Keel-billed Toucan, Toco Toucan, or some other species, they are all spectacular. Toucans are found in Mexico, south through Central America, and into South America. This bird is famous for its long colorful bill.
The bills, while very large, are lightweight and strong. Toucans are amazingly dexterous with them and often pass fruit back and forth to each other and reach for food in places other birds might not have access to. They also use them for fencing to establish hierarchies and it is a very efficient thermoregulation system.
1. Shoebill Stork
Not sure if this is the most specialized bill, but it is the most intimidating. The Shoebill Stork (Balaeniceps rex) of East and Central Africa has a beak that is about a foot long and close to 6 inches wide. There is a sharp hook at the tip of the upper mandible. The bill is used for many different purposes, from communication to foraging.
When Shoebills spot their prey, they quickly “collapse” headfirst into the water. They grab both their prey, mostly fish, and vegetation into their bill. The feeding process can take up to half an hour since they use the sharp edges of the mandibles to cut bigger fish into sections and eat them gradually.
They also use their beaks to cool their eggs by collecting water into them and then pouring it onto the nest and eggs.