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Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

You can tell quite a bit about a bird's habits and habitat just from looking at the size and shape of the bird's wings or the size and shape of its beak. You can figure out details about how the bird flies, where the bird lives, what it eats, and much more.

The same thing is true about the size and shape of a bird's feet. Feet not only walk – they talk.

Birds use their feet for many important activities, including:

  • swimming
  • catching prey
  • walking
  • perching
  • wading
  • climbing

Sometimes birds even use their feet to defend themselves.

Birds' feet are covered with heavily scaled skin. This "scaly" skin is helpful because it actually strengthens the foot. Birds can't wear shoes, so they need this scaly skin to help prevent wear and tear due to walking and perching.

A bird's feet and toes are made up mostly of tough tendons and bones. The feet don't have very many nerves, blood vessels or muscles. This is what enables a bird to land on cold metal perches or walk on ice when temperatures drop. A bird on an icy sidewalk doesn't feel cold from its feet the way you would if you walked barefoot over the same surface. Often, a bird will constrict the blood vessels in its feet to prevent additional blood from flowing into its toes.

The blood vessels in the legs of birds are located right next to each other. Because of this, the warm blood flowing from the birds' body transfers some of its heat to the cool blood returning from its feet. This helps the bird stay alive. If the warm blood didn't heat the cold blood, the birds' core temperature could be overwhelmed by cold blood from the feet. The bird's core temperature would drop, endangering the bird.

Some birds that have adapted to colder temperatures not only have a limited number of blood vessels and nerves in their feet to help battle the cold – they also have feathers on their legs. The Rough-legged Hawk is a good example of this. The feathers on this raptor (bird of prey) extend much farther down the legs than the feathers of most birds.

Some birds, like the Snowy Owl, also have feathers that cover their feet. The feathers help keep the birds' feet warm in extremely cold weather.

Most birds use their beaks for preening (grooming), but many also use their feet. Birds developed the habit of using their beaks and feet for preening because their "hands" have evolved into wings.


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