Birds With the Weirdest Bills, Just in Time for Tax Day

Only one bird of some 10,500 species has a bill that points sideways.

It’s tax time in the U.S., and Weird Animal Question of the Week thought folks might like to think about another type of bill for a while.

We wondered: “What are some of the world’s weirdest bird bills?”

ROSEATE SPOONBILL This colourful bird (pictured at the Gladys Porter Zoo) uses its bill like salad tongs to slurp up prey.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

HORNED PUFFIN A horned puffin poses at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. These birds use their brilliant beaks to attract mates.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

LONG-BILLED CURLEW This species (pictured, a female at the Tracy Aviary) has a bill longer than its body.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

SPOT-BILLED PELICAN Pelicans, like this spot-billed pelican at the Pizen Zoo, catch fish in their massive pouches and dump excess water before eating.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

SHOEBILL A type of African stork, the shoebill (above, an individual at the Houston Zoo) can fit big prey in its mouth—including baby crocodiles.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

BLACK SKIMMER Boris the black skimmer sits for the camera at the Buttonwood Park Zoo. This species is the only known bird with a lower beak that's longer than its upper beak.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

BROWN PELICAN Back from the brink of extinction, the coastal bird plunge dives to feed, stunning small fish before eating them. This animal lives at the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

WOOD STORK When a wood stork (pictured at the Sedgwick County Zoo) senses a fish against its beak, it can scoop up the prey in just 25 milliseconds.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

PIED AVOCET A pied avocet pauses midstep at Sylvan Heights Bird Park. Avocets use their thin, upturned bill to sweep through shallow water, catching tiny prey.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

CHILEAN FLAMINGO This is no lawn ornament: It's a Chilean flamingo at the Gladys Porter Zoo. Its unique beak allows it to filter-feed small organisms in the water.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

VANISHING BIRD Once found throughout Asia, the spot-billed pelican has declined to populations in India, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. This animal lives in the Pizen Zoo.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

Beak Unique

To clear things up, a bill and a beak are synonyms; both refer to a bird's jaws and their horny covering.

And within the world's 10,500 known bird species, some species have bills like no others.

The wrybill of New Zealand, for instance, is the only known bird with “a bill that bends sideways," says Bob Mulvihill, an ornithologist at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. It may look funny, but it's all the better for reaching tasty mayflies hiding under river rocks.

Many birds have downward-facing, or decurved, bills, like hermit hummingbirds, whose “bill is an exact fit to the curvature” of the flowers on which they feed, Mulvihill says.

Few birds have upward-curving, or recurved bills. South America's endangered bush-billed bird is said to have a Mona Lisa smile, and wide-ranging avocets use their thin, upturned bill to sweep through shallow water, catching tiny prey.

Perfect Fit

If you haven't noticed already, bird bills can tell us a lot about their lifestyles, Mulvihill says.

The black skimmer of eastern South America is the only bird with an underbite: A longer lower bill than upper bill. This helps the species skim the water for prey in flight.

A group of finches called crossbills have upper and lower bills that criss-cross instead of fitting together cleanly, an adaptation for wrangling seeds out of pine cones.

Despite its namesake shape, the roseate spoonbill’s beak is “used more like a pair of salad tongs,” which the bird swishes in the water, partially open, to snag its prey, Jerome Jackson, behavioural ecologist at Florida Gulf Coast University, says via email.

The shoebill stork of Africa’s Great Lakes region has a shoe-shaped bill so big Mulvihill says "it would fit Shaquille O’Neal.”

SHOEBILL STORK

What do they eat with those bills?

“Pretty much anything they want,” Mulvihill says, but they really like baby crocodiles.

Reduced Bill

Bills aren't only for eating, either.

The rhinoceros hornbill of Southeast Asia has a casque, or helmet, on its bill. Sound echoes through this “mostly hollow, honey-combed chamber and amplifies” the birds’ calls,” Mulvihill says.

Both male and female puffin of northern climes sport a bright "comical-looking bill" to attract mates, Mulvihill says.

“But in the non-breeding season, they lose those colourful, horny plates,” so their bill “becomes much less exaggerated and eye-catching.”

A reduced bill. Jealous much?

Header Image: RHINOCEROS HORNBILL These impressive birds (pictured, a female at the Cincinnati Zoo) have a head structure called a casque that amplifies their calls. PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

Discuss this article

Newsletter

Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
Submit