Birds are quickly defined by their bills, and among the more than 10,000 species of birds you’ll find that a number have bills that must be seen to be believed. Shapes, colors and unique functions indicate a distinctiveness seldom seen in other species. Some bill types are so bizarre that only a single bird type on the planet can claim to wield them, which you’ll discover as you read through this list.
With a scientific name that literally means whale headed ruler, this enormous heron-like bird wades through large swamps in Eastern Africa. Their huge bills resemble a Dutch clog, while a hooked tip adds to the impression. Shoebill storks may swallow catfish, frogs and even lungfish, along with occasional birds and mammals. This species can reach nearly five feet in height, with a weight of 12 pounds. The grey, pale eyed birds will stand still for long periods of time and plunge their bill suddenly into the water. Despite their massive size, shoebills are able to walk on floating vegetation as they pursue their prey.
A river dwelling shorebird, this banded, whitish grey plover is apparently one of the most normal looking birds in the world until you look closely at the bill. Permanently bent to the side, the curved “wry bill” that gives the bird its name gives this species a foraging advantage as it sifts the stones of its upland river habitat. The curved bill reaches under the rocks and allows the wrybill to conveniently extract its crustacean and insect prey. The bill is always bent to the right.
8. Long-billed Curlew
Curlews in Europe were long known in popular writing and cultural references, but the long-billed curlew of North America is the sandpiper species with the longest bill of any shorebird. Like many sandpipers, curlews are actually found far inland, away from oceans or even freshwater bodies. Nesting in grasslands, this species uses its enormous bill as a scythe, catching not water animals, but grasshoppers, crickets and other small field invertebrates. Long-billed curlews migrate across vast distances and may be found in coastal habitats in migration season. The pale beige color and long, curved bill that can reach eight inches in length make this bird look like a walking blade as it hunts for prey.
7. Surf Scoter
Ducks are known to quack, but in reality many other sounds characterize sea going ducks. In addition, that typical yellow bill seen on mallards or farm ducks is not entirely representative of duck bills. Ducks can be divided into several categories, including dabbling ducks and sea ducks. Among the ocean going waterfowl are some of the weirdest bills among birds. Adapted to feed on shellfish, the nearly all black surf scoter sports a massive, clam seizing bill that allows it to easily pick large prey off the ocean floor. The black, orange and beige patterns on the male’s bill makes it especially striking, while the large nasal openings appear to form a clear tunnel through the bill. Surf scoters are found along North American coastlines and head into the north to breed. A strange whistling call can be heard on the water when they assemble into massive flocks or “rafts.”
6. Sword Billed Hummingbird
The sword billed hummingbird of South America inhabits a range of habitats where unusually deep fuchsia flowers are found. In order to reach into these flowers and collect nectar, the sword billed hummingbird has a bill that makes it perfectly adapted to this lifestyle and especially unique in appearance. At a whopping four inches, this showy, bright green hummingbird’s bill is the only bill in the world longer than the bird itself. The tongue also extends notably further on this species. The bird appears rather front heavy in flight, but this adaptation helped the bird find its ecologoical niche.
5. Common Merganser
The common merganser resembles an average duck, but it’s actually a living example of a prehistoric or even a science fiction concept — a fierce hunting bird with razor sharp teeth. This duck’s bill contains more than 100 vicious “teeth” that extend from the edges of each mandible. The largest member of the so called “sawbill” group of ducks is found in estuaries, lakes, rivers and large ponds across the Northern Hemisphere. The teeth of this piscivorous bird seize fish with ease and allow them to be sliced up and eaten with little effort. This toothed killer also eats small mammals on occasion, and frogs or reptiles that get close are also likely to be put on the menu. In flight, the mergansers are some of the fastest waterbirds known, clocked at over 80 kilometers per hour. The common merganser is also one of the largest duck species.
4. Black Skimmer
The three species of skimmer are waterbirds native to rivers and ocean habitats across Asia, South America, North America and Africa. Uniquely, these striking black and white birds with large heads have disproportionate bill mandibles, with the lower mandible extending further than the upper. Skimmers rush along the water at high speeds with their lower bill cutting a channel through the water. Everytime a fish or shrimp is encountered, the bill claps shut and the bird swallows. Such an extreme lifestyle does not come without risks, however, and collisions with submerged objects do occur from time to time. Skimmer bills are highly colorful, with red and black accents. The sharpened points have also been used to kill invading gulls in nesting colonies.
3. Roseate Spoonbill
In Florida’s Everglades, colored flamingo pink and resembling that bird at first glance, the roseate spoonbill is a showy species. However, that pink plumage will not hide the grotesque and dinosaur-like appearance of its face and unfeathered body parts. The spoonbill has an enormous, flat bill that resembles a yardstick. At the end of the bill, the shape becomes more rounded. The huge spatula this bird carries around allows easy access to a multitude of aquatic animals and nutritious food sources in the warm, shallow wetlands it feeds in. Spoonbills are often seen feeding with herons, storks and cranes.
Various species of crossbills are canary like finches found in Northern Hemisphere conifer forests. A walk in Canada or Scotland will likely produce a sighting of one or more crossbill species. These colorful red or yellow finches have bills that twist around the tips in opposite directions, creating a bizarre and misshapen appearance. Different species of crossbills have slightly different bill forms to allow them to focus on their specific dietary adaptations. Crossbill activity can be detected at ground level by the number of severed cones dropped by this twisted billed, almost parrot-like songbird.
1. American Woodcock
Bird bills are supposed to be stiff probes or picking and pecking appendages. However, certain shorebirds have more unusual mandible adaptations. The woodcocks, a family of sandpiper-like waders with disproportionately long bills, are found in moist forested and shrubby habitats with mud and wet soil from which invertebrates are gathered. The woodcock’s probing bill is filled with nerve endings allowing it to be used as an effective sensory organ. Most incredible is a woodcock’s ability to bend its bill for added control and leverage as it works its way through the substrate and seizes prey. Victims may include earthworms, beetle larvae and other small invertebrates. The bird’s bill is fleshy to the touch, and feels soft compared to the bills of many closely related species.