HOME Birding 101 Index
Lesson
Index
Previous
Lesson
Previous Lesson
Next
Lesson
Next Lesson

BIRDING 101
LESSON 4: FEET, MORE THAN FOR WALKING


The feet of birds are as diverse as birds themselves. Walking, running, perching, wading, preening, scratching, and grasping are but some of the


more obvious functions of bird feet. Some adaptations are obvious, like webbed toes for swimmers, some are subtle, like the toothed comb on the middle toe of herons, used for preening.

I can easily accept the advantage of woodpeckers having two toes forward and two toes backwards to facilitate clinging to a vertical surface (tree trunk). Some believe that prairie birds, like Horned Larks and Pipits, have extended hind toenails to use as braces to keep them from tipping backwards when the prairie winds blow. I think the long toenails may be there for an entirely different reason.

The next time you're birding, pay close attention to the feet of birds observed and see how many adaptations you can discover. Relate these differences to the bird's food, behavior, and habitat. To get you started, here are a few of my observations. White-tailed Ptarmigan sprout little appendages on the side of their toes in the fall to serve as snowshoes during the winter. Osprey have very sharp talons and can catch a slippery fish that we would have trouble holding on to. Many perching birds have delicate feet but toes that close automatically when the bird squats on a limb, thus allowing the bird to sleep without falling off the limb. Next time you have a bird in the hand, gently bend the leg and watch the toes curl up.

When are feet "hands"? When a chickadee holds a sunflower seed while it opens it up and eats the goodie. A hawk holds its prey while eating. Parrots are probably the most dexterous of birds with some being left-handed and some right-handed.

Some birds use their feet for defense or for courtship rituals. The spurs on the legs of male pheasants and turkeys are well-known tools to help a male achieve dominance. It may surprise you that a kick from the thick two-toed foot of an Ostrich is said to be more powerful than that of a horse.

Some birds rarely have a need for feet and, over time, their feet have become tiny and weak. Whip-poor-wills, nighthawks, swallows, swifts and hummingbirds have diminutive feet and find it difficult or impossible to walk.


HOME Birding 101 Index
Lesson
Index
Previous
Lesson
Previous Lesson
Next
Lesson
Next Lesson