15 Birds With Unbelievable Beaks

Great hornbills in the rainforest in Thailand

Arun Roisri / Getty Images

When Mother Nature decides to specialize an animal, she does it with style. These birds have some of the most amazing beaks and bills in the avian kingdom. These beautiful beaks aren’t just for looks—these fashionable birds use their special bills to reach tall branches or elusive fish. Flashy and functional, these birds’ beaks all have flair.

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Black Skimmer

black skimmer skimming

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The black skimmer has a truly unique bill among shorebirds, and really, among all North American birds. The bill is large yet very thin, and the lower mandible extends out past the upper mandible. These features make it ideal for how this bird catches food. As it flies, it dips the lower mandible into the water, skimming for fish. The razor-thin bill can slice through the water and, when it senses a fish, snaps the upper mandible down onto it. The skimmer is the only bird species in North and South America with such a foraging technique.

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Rhinoceros Hornbill

Rhinoceros hornbill

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The rhinoceros hornbill has a name as impressive as its unbelievable bill. Atop its bill is a feature called a casque, which has a striking upward curve like a rhino horn, hence the bird's common name. The strong bill is used for reaching fruit from thin tree branches, and that impressive casque is used as a resonating chamber to amplify the bird's loud calls.

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Roseate Spoonbill

roseate spoonbill in the water

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It's easy to guess how this bird got its common name. The roseate spoonbill is one of several species of spoonbill, all of which sport this uniquely shaped bill. It feeds in shallow fresh and coastal waters; walking while moving the bill from side to side, it uses its beak to strain small food items from water such as crustaceans, aquatic insects, and small fish.

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Red Crossbill

A red crossbill perched on a branch in Fremont National Forest in central Oregon.

Bob Pool / Shutterstock

The red crossbill sports a bill that would be viewed as a deformity in most other finch species. But for this species, it is the perfect way to get at its primary food source: the seeds held within pinecones. Even tightly closed cones can be accessed thanks to the unusual shape of its bill. The bird places the tips of the bill under a cone scale and bites down, which pushes the scale up and exposes the seed.

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Sandra L. Grimm / Getty Images

Like the spoonbill, the shoebill's name has a rather obvious source. This stork-like bird has a bill shaped like a large shoe, which is the bird's most notable feature. The sharp edges of the mandibles help the shoebill kill its fishy prey and also discard vegetation caught along the way. It also has a sharp hook at the tip, making it possible for the bird to grip, crush, and pierce prey all at once. In other words, this bird is as tough as it looks.

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Long-Billed Curlew

Long-billed curlew in shallow water

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The long-billed curlew is a North American shorebird that spends winters on the coast and breeds in grasslands. Its long bill is adapted for both places, catching shrimp and crabs living in deep burrows in tidal mudflats, and also snatching up earthworms in pastures. The bill is one of the longest of any shorebird, rivaling that of the far eastern curlew. The female has a longer bill than the male, and hers has a slightly different shape. While the male's bill curves along its entire length, hers is slightly flatter on top with a more pronounced curve at the tip.

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Sword-Billed Hummingbird

sword-billed hummingbird

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The sword-billed hummingbird has the longest beak relative to its body size of any bird in the world. In fact, it's the only bird that sometimes has a bill longer than its body. The bill is so long, the hummingbird must groom itself with its feet. It also has to perch with its head tilted at an upward angle to be able to balance. But the upside is it can feed on flowers with particularly long corollas, reaching nectar that is unavailable to other hummingbird species.

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Great Hornbill

great hornbil in flight

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The great hornbill is another bird with a particularly impressive bill. This is one of the larger species, along with the rhinoceros hornbill. It sports a bright yellow and black casque on top of its already enormous bill. Though it seems to serve no purpose, the hollow casque may be used for mating selection. And interestingly, the males of the species have been seen head-butting each other with their casques while in flight.

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Toco Toucan

Toco toucan in a tree

Image captured by Joanne Hedger / Getty Images

We could never leave the toco toucan off this list. Its amazing bill accounts for between 30% and 50% of its entire body surface area. Good for reaching things that would otherwise be too far away, the toucan's bill may also be good for peeling skin from fruit, intimidating other birds, and scaring off predators. However, scaring them is all it could really do. The bill is made of a honeycomb of keratin, so it is not particularly heavy nor strong. But that structure also helps it regulate body temperature. Research has suggested that by adjusting blood flow to the bill, toucans can release more body heat and stay cool.

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Keel-Billed Toucan

pair of keel-billed toucans

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Another species of toucan with a particularly amazing bill is the keel-billed toucan. It has the same functions as the bill of the toco toucan, but adds some rainbow colors in splashy patterns. That's how it got its alternate name, the rainbow-billed toucan.

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American White Pelican

American white pelican eating a fish

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Pelicans have truly amazing bills. With a pouch of skin, called a throat sac, connected to the lower mandible to act as a net, they are able to catch fish and filter out the water. What's interesting about the American white pelican is that during breeding season, it makes its bill extra flashy. These pelicans grow a "horn" on the upper bill, which is shed after they lay their eggs. It's the only pelican species to grow such an appendage.

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Flamingos at Flamingo Beach, Aruba

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The flamingo has one of the most recognized profiles around. But we don't often stop to celebrate that unbelievable beak. It's designed to be used upside-down and has a hairy, filter-like structure called lamellae lining the mandibles that help separate food from mud and water before expelling the liquid.

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North Island brown kiwi

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The kiwi is the only bird to have its nostrils at the tip of its beak. Other birds have the nostrils higher up, usually near the base of their face. But not the kiwi. It has the second largest olfactory bulk relative to the size of its forebrain (the condor having the largest), meaning it has an exceptional sense of smell. It uses this sense of smell and these specially placed nostrils to locate food in leaf litter.

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Atlantic Puffin

Two Atlantic puffins in Iceland

Sir Francis Canker Photography / Getty Images

Flashy red-and-black stripes on its beak are the source of this bird's nicknames: "clown of the sea" and "sea parrot." But the bold color pattern on the beak of the Atlantic puffin is only the beginning of what makes this beak so special. There are serrations on the upper mandible, so the puffin can carry more than 10 fish at once by holding them with its tongue against them.

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American Avocet

avocet on the water

Mike Baird / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The American avocet has an elegant, delicate appearance that extends all the way to its long, amazingly thin, and slightly up-curved bill. It swishes its bill from side to side through shallow water, looking for crustaceans and insects. Though it looks too delicate to be believed, the bird uses its bill for feeding and will aggressively attack predators like Northern harriers and ravens.

View Article Sources
  1. "A Bird With A Big Air-Conditioning Bill.". 2009. American Association For The Advancement Of Science (AAAS), doi:10.1126/article.31095