An acorn woodpecker (Courtesy/Albert Ryckman)
Every bird has one. But there the uniformity ends.
A bird’s beak shall grow to resemble those of the bird’s parents. A young cowbird, raised by two hustling song sparrows, will still grow a cowbird’s beak.
There are beaks for many occasions and occupations. Beaks can be used as tweezers or chisel, sieve or meat cleaver, large pouch or tiny probe, drinking straw or tongs. Beak colors can go from a drab brown to bold yellow and on to the incandescent glows of toucan and puffin. In such birds the exterior color patterns are more beacon than utility, more advertising than mere tool.
The beak is made of keratin, like people’s own fingernails and hair. Keratin is a fibrous structural protein. On a healthy, well-fed bird the beak is always growing. Wear from normal use will keep it from over-growing.
Size: in tiny pine siskins the beak is just over a third of an inch long, barely bigger in females. Oregon’s tallest bird, the sandhill crane, has a beak that’s a trowel and pair of pliers. It can range from 3.5 inches in smaller females to over five inches among largest males. The long-billed curlew breeds in parts of eastern Oregon and its beak can be over 8 inches long. This on a bird about two feet tall. Another breeding bird in eastern Oregon is the white pelican. Its wingspan is second in North America only to the California condor--nearly nine feet across. White pelicans also carry around a serious beak with which to bucket up fish in deep water. In males that beak can be over 13 inches long with a flexible pouch thrown in. The Calliope hummingbird is the smallest breeding species in Oregon. Their biggest beaks are on the females but even those are less than two-thirds of an inch.
The beak may be used to crush, tear, grab or tweezer up food. Some beaks are sensory organs with taste and feel and sensitivity to vibrations built in–think long-beaked shorebird probing mud or sand. The beak can help shape song or be used to make a clacking noise. Preening of feathers—one’s own or that of a partner—is a highly important function. The beak stimulates the oil glands that keep so many birds shining and more or less waterproof. Some beaks have taste buds to match those found on a bird’s tongue.
Our woodpeckers have specially padded lower beaks so they can drum on wood or your chimney flashing without turning their brain to porridge. Those woodpecker beaks are a superb hammer and chisel combo. Also they become signaling devices during spring when drumming is used to lure mates and scare off competition.
Harry Fuller is an Oregon birder and natural history author of "Freeway Birding." He is a member of the Salem Audubon Society. Contact him at [email protected] or http://www.towhee.net/. His "Some Fascinating Things About Birds" column will be appearing regularly in Salem Reporter.
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