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Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

Ducks, geese, and swans all have webbed feet. The primary use for webbed feet is paddling through water.

Here's how it works: as the bird pulls its foot backwards through the water, the toes spread apart, causing the webs to spread out. The webs push more water than just a bird foot with spread-out toes would push. (It would be like trying to swim with your fingers spread apart.) The webbed feet propel the bird through the water.

When the bird pulls its foot forward for the next push, the toes come together, folding up the webs. The foot is instantly less resistant, moving through the water easily to get into place for the next stroke without pushing the bird backwards.

Webbed feet are useful on land as well as on water because they allow birds to walk more easily on mud.

There are actually two different kinds of webbed feet:

  • Some birds like the Northern Pintail or Mallard have webbing between three of their toes. Each bird has a fourth toe located behind the webbing that does not help in propelling the bird through the water. This type of webbed foot is known as palmate – that is, shaped like an open hand or palm.
  • The other type of webbed foot has webbing between all four of the bird's toes. This type of webbed foot is known as totipalmate – "toti" meaning total and "palmate" meaning open hand or palm.

Most swimming or paddling birds have their legs and feet located at the rear of their body. This adaptation is an advantage on the water – it helps to propel the birds along.

But what's good on the water isn't necessarily good on land. Having their legs and feet located at the rear of their body makes walking more difficult for these birds.


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