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Birds don't have teeth, paw, hands, antlers, horns, or spines, but they do have beaks.

The beak – also known as the bill – has two parts:  the upper mandible and the lower mandible.


(Courtesy NEBRASKAland
Magazine/ NGPC)
  • The upper mandible is a fancy name for a bird's upper beak or upper bill. The upper mandible grows out of the skull, just as your upper teeth grow out of your skull. The upper mandible doesn't move independently from the skull.

  • The lower mandible is the scientific name for a bird's lower beak or bill. The lower mandible can move indepently because it's hinged. It can move up and down, just like your jaw.

Unlike your teeth, beaks are covered with skin. This skin produces a substance called keratin – the same material feathers, hair, and fingernails are made of. The keratin produced by a bird's beak will dry and condense to make the bill hard and durable. The dried keratin also gives the beak a glossy appearance. As the keratin wears down, it's replaced so the beak will remain sharp.

Does having a beak make up for not having teeth, paws, hands, antlers, horns or spines? It has to. Birds must rely on their beaks to carry out many different tasks.

The number one use for the beak is to gather or capture food. However, birds also use beaks to pick up building materials and construct their nests. (Think about building a house with your mouth!)

But birds use beaks for even more. When they have to, birds use beaks and feet as weapons to defend themselves, their nests, and their chicks.

Birds use beaks for drinking, feeding their young, and preening.

Some birds, like the American White Pelican, even grow special structures on their beaks during breeding season to make themselves more attractive (at least, to each other).

Beaks come in a wonderful assortment of shapes and sizes, each perfectly suited for that particular bird's favorite foods and typical feeding behaviors.

Some beaks are specialized to be just right for certain diets. Birds with these bills use them the same way you use a spoon to eat ice cream or a fork to eat salad.


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