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Sanderling in flight

In the second of our special features about bird adaptations, find out how birds have evolved a remarkable diversity of bills and feet, each tailored to suit the demands of a particular environment.

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Brilliant bills

Birds’ bills are versatile tools, specially designed to match their dietary needs, from the powerful, hooked beaks of birds of prey used for tearing into flesh, to the long probing bills of Solent’s wading birds.

A curlew's long curved bill

A curlew with its long curved bill

A shoveler with its huge shovel-like bill which it sweeps to-and-fro in the water

A shoveler duck with its huge bill which sweeps to-and-fro in the water

A grey heron with its spear-like bill

A grey heron with its spear-like bill

Many ducks, such as shovelers, have long, flat bills that strain small plants and animals from the water, while the red breasted merganser has saw-like or serrated ‘teeth’, perfect for gripping fish.

Birds that rely on fishing for food often have long, spear-like bills, such as those of grey heron and little egret.

Find out more about oystercatcher and curlew’s specially adapted bills.

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Talented toes

The feet of birds are far from being one-size-fits-all.  Whether it’s the talons of raptors or the webbed feet of waterfowl, these adaptations are a testament to the evolutionary journey birds have undertaken.

Wading birds, like godwit and redshank, tend to have long, slender legs and elongated toes, perfectly suited for muddy marshes and shallow waters.

While swimming experts, such as ducks, geese, gulls and cormorants, have developed webbed feet where interconnected skin forms an effective natural paddle. Some birds, such as the coot, have developed a half-way stage to a webbed foot, with lobed flaps of skin on their toes which act in the same way when swimming.

A black-tailed godwit with long elegant legs
The coot has a lobed foot, half way to a webbed foot

The coot’s lobed feet help it swim in the water

While most birds have four toes, with three facing forward and one back, some birds’ toes are adapted to suit different needs.

Climbing birds like woodpeckers and parrots have ‘zygodactyl’ feet, with two toes facing forwards and two face backwards.

This means they can grip firmly and manoeuvre up vertical tree-trunks.

Great spotted woodpecker can grip onto vertical tree trunks with specially adapted toes

Other birds have feet built for running.

Emus and sanderling may seem completely at opposite ends of bird evolution but they’ve got one thing in common.

Like many wading birds, both species only have three toes – this allows them to achieve incredible speeds while conserving energy.

Sanderling have only 3 toes to aid swift running

Fast-running sanderling

Emus have only 3 toes to aid swift running

Speedy three-toed emu

 

 

Most songbirds, like blackbirds and robins, have feet that are perfectly designed for perching – passerine.

These feet have three forward-facing toes and one backward-facing toe, providing optimal stability while roosting on branches.

 

 

A perching blackbird

Swifts, who stay on the wing almost all of the time, don’t have feet that are adapted to perching. Did you know their scientific name, Apus apus, actually means “footless, footless”?  Of course swifts do have feet but, because they very rarely land, they’ve evolved extremely short legs.

Swifts rarely land

Birds of prey such as white-tailed eagles, buzzards and peregrine falcons, have developed powerful and sharp talons that are perfect for capturing and holding onto prey. These formidable feet allow them to maintain a strong grip on their food while soaring through the skies.

A white-tailed eagle hunting
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To learn more about incredible adaptations, read the first in our Amazing Adaptations features – about how birds’ wings, hearts and feathers have evolved to match their environmental challenges and opportunities.