15 Birds With Unbelievable Beaks

These are the flashiest, most specialized beaks around.

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

Dan Pancamo / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

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 (described as "almost laterally knife-like in shape") 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

razaklatif / Getty Images

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, made from keratin, is used as a resonating chamber to amplify the bird's loud calls. This bird can only be found in peninsular Malaysia, as well as the islands of Java, Borneo, and Sumatra.

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Roseate Spoonbill

roseate spoonbill in the water

Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography / Getty Images

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. It's believed that the bird gets its rosy coloring from pigments in the crustaceans that it eats.

These birds can be found in marshy areas of Florida and the Gulf Coast, where their populations are recovering after years of overhunting.

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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. These birds tend to live in mountainous conifer and boreal forests.

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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. It lives in swamps in Africa and is considered a relative of the pelican and heron. Sometimes it clatters its bill to communicate with others.

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Long-Billed Curlew

A long-billed curlew walks along the beach

USFWS Pacific Southwest Region / Flickr / CC By 2.0

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

Joesboy / Getty Images

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, this 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 that it can feed on flowers with particularly long corollas, reaching nectar that is unavailable to other hummingbird species. It lives in South America.

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Great Hornbill

great hornbil in flight

kajornyot wildlife photography / Shutterstock

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.

These birds are found in Southeast Asia, the Malay Peninsula, and Indonesia. They like wet, tall evergreen forests, and tend to nest in old-growth trees that extend above the forest canopy.

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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. The beak has a long, flat tongue inside that helps the bird to eat lizards, frogs, and insects.

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. The bird is native to South America.

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Keel-Billed Toucan

pair of keel-billed toucans

J Uriarte / Getty Images

Another species of toucan with a particularly amazing bill that comprises one-third of its entire length 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. It thrives in the humid climates of Central and South America, where it lives and nests in flocks.

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American White Pelican

American white pelican eating a fish

Glass and Nature / Shutterstock

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. They "upend" like a duck to hunt, rather than diving like a brown pelican.

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

Federico Cabello / Getty Images

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. It's a design similar to that of baleen whales and it allows the Greater Flamingo to capture prey like crustaceans, mollusks, and insects up to an inch long. The Lesser Flamingo, by contrast, uses its beak to sift out tiny single-celled plants.

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North Island brown kiwi

Lakeview_Images / Getty Images

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. By contrast, its eyesight is poor.

The kiwi uses this sense of smell and these specially placed nostrils to locate food in leaf litter. There's evidence that it even use its external nose to detect the movement of prey below the soil—even an earthworm that's an inch down. As it walks, the kiwi probes the earth and sniffs, then uses its beak as a lever to widen the hole.

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Atlantic Puffin

Two Atlantic puffins in Iceland

Sir Francis Canker Photography / Getty Images

Flashy red-and-black stripes on its triangular 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. The bill grows larger and gains more serrations as the bird ages. Young birds have all-black bills.

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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 no deeper than eight inches, looking for crustaceans and insects. While hunting, it will sometimes shake mud off its foot with each step. 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.

Correction—March 9, 2022: A previous version of this article included an incorrect photo of a long-billed curlew.

View Article Sources
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