Many years back, I noticed birds swiping their beaks on feeder poles or branches. I thought at that time they were cleaning their beaks. I was half right.
Many things birds eat — fruits, insects and meaty prey, for example — make a sticky mess on their beaks. Raptors clean their beaks after a kill and songbirds do the same after dining on squishy caterpillars or juicy fruits. Next time a tufted titmouse comes to your feeder, pay attention. Titmice seem to overdo the process of swiping.
In addition to cleaning the beak, swiping it across a rough, hard surface also keeps it sharp. The feeder pole made of metal surely is a good place to do this. Birds need to keep their beaks in good condition. If they can’t forage and feed, they will die.
I have read that the swiping motion can also be a sign of aggression. This action may be seen more in the behavior of parrots. The bird is trying to show dominance over another bird. Maybe it’s also a mating move. The female may think a male is a stud hunk if he is an aggressive swiper.
The maxilla or upper mandible is the top part of the beak. It’s an extension of the bird’s skull and cannot move independently from the skull. The lower mandible is hinged, like our jaws, and can move up and down (and in some species, has limited side-to-side motion).
Pelicans have huge beaks, the better to scoop up fish in quantity. The magnificent white pelican paddles along and scoops fish while it swims. By contrast, the brown pelican dives for its fish.
A pelican’s pouch-like beak can hold about three gallons of water. When the fish are scooped, the pelican drains out the water and then swallows the fish. Next time you are watching them you will see that they have to release the water from their beak before swallowing the fish.
The beak is contracted or folded up when the bird isn’t feeding. The only other time you may see it unfolded is when the pelican yawns … maybe after a big meal.
Both pelican species feed mostly on small fish just a few inches long. The white pelican can also catch a large fish with its bill tip. The fish is then tossed in the air and swallowed headfirst. We see these activities of white pelicans here in Southwest Florida in the winter months.
Most birders have seen what great egrets, snowy egrets, little blue heron and other waders can do with their beaks. They are expert spearfishermen. They are a source of amusement, as the birding community loves to watch an egret spear a fish, then do the shaking-the-fish dance. Then, after a considerable amount of time, they will swallow even a huge fish into their narrow gullet.
Hawks and other raptors have curved beaks that are very sharp and can be quite dangerous if you get near their nest. The beak and their long talons are why people doing eagle surveys often wear hard hats. These birds are meat eaters and will attack and kill many small animals. A sharp beak is like a knife, good for pulling prey apart.
Other birds have beaks that fit their lifestyles. Curlews, roseate spoonbills, godwits and similar species have long beaks which probe in the muck for crustaceans, worms and insects. The mighty woodpeckers use their beaks like a riveter. They hammer into trees creating nesting cavities and also digging for insects and such.
The long beak of the hummingbird is for nectaring. We see these little gems in gardens feeding on flowers or even at a hummingbird feeder with sugar water in it. Parrots have very curved and sharp pointed beaks, similar to raptor beaks but sturdier. They use them for opening nuts and ripping into fruit.
Not every beak is specialized, as lots of birds are generalists. Short, thick, strong beaks may be used for many things. Birds with such beaks are often primarily seed eaters. You see these birds at feeders and on plants with seeds and nuts. Most seed eaters will also devour berries and insects.
Make that bill a little longer and it’s much more useful for reaching into narrow spaces or grasping things like a tweezer. Such a beak can even be used in a predatory way. I have actually watched a crow with a black racer in its beak. The crow spent a very long time whacking this snake around until it was lifeless, and only then did it eat it.
No matter what type of beak a bird has, observing its size and shape can tell you a lot about its owner. In that way, they’re much like us. You can often tell what a person does from the type of tools and accessories they carry with them. The difference is that the birds are equipped perfectly by nature, while we have to improvise as best we can.
Abbie Banks is a member of the Venice Area Birding Association, a group of folks who want to enjoy the environment and nature without the cumbersome politics of an organized group. For more info on VABA or to be notified of upcoming birding trips, visit AbbiesWorld.org/references.html or email her at Amberina@aol.com.