If you eat nuts and seeds you need teeth, right? For most of us the answer is yes, but not if you’re a bird. These fascinating creatures enjoy a varied diet and don’t have any teeth.
How Do Birds Chew?
Which such a wide choice of food and no teeth, just how do birds manage to eat?
The only real different in how birds eat is in how they use their bill.
Many birds use their bill to pick up the food and the bill is often shaped to help them with the foods they eat. Hummingbirds, for example, have long, thin bills to help them get to the nectar inside flowers. Birds of prey, on the other hands, need bills to cope with rodents and small animals. They have what look like teeth on their bill, but these are in fact serrations, which help them to grip their food.
Birds usually swallow their food whole, but if the food is large, such as whole fruit or a reptile, the bird will use their bill or talons to break it down first. They also use their bill to break open food such as nuts and seeds. If you see a bird hitting something against a rock, then this is another way to break up food.
Once swallowed, the food is then ‘stored’ in their digestive system, so that it is digested slowly. It is then ‘chewed’ in the gizzard. This is in their stomach and basically grinds the food up so they can digest it. Digestion can be aided by small stones and rocks in the stomach which birds pick up and swallow for this very purpose.
What Do Birds Eat?
Not all birds have the same diet, but many foods are enjoyed by many species of bird. The foods they eat can vary and will also rely on the environment in which they live.
- Seeds and nuts: Most birds enjoy eating different seeds and nuts. Peanuts and sunflower seeds are very popular with birds, such as woodpeckers, jays, nuthatches and house sparrows. If you put these out, just get plain nuts as salt is not good for many birds.
- Fruit: most birds enjoy fruits and berries, and if you grow them in your garden, they will even eat them from the tree. Among the birds who love fruit are bluebirds, woodpeckers, cardinals and the American Robin.
- Grubs and insects: Most bugs are fair game to birds. They love grubbing around picking out ants, bees, worms and many other insects. Even hummingbirds will eat them to build up fat and protein for their long migration.
- Reptiles: Some larger birds, such as roadrunners and herons will eat smaller reptiles such as frogs and lizards. Birds of prey will also hunt and eat small mammals.
- Suet: During the winter, suet can be an important source of fat for many birds. Many suet blocks have fruit or seeds in them too. Woodpeckers love suet but most other birds will eat it too, such as orioles, magpies and tits.
- Fish: Most fish eating birds live near water, and catch their own food. Fish eaters include ospreys, heron, and tern.
- Nectar: For some birds, nectar is an important source of energy. They will drink the nectar from flowers or you can put up feeders with homemade nectar in. Hummingbirds and orioles are two species who love it.
- Peanut butter: Yes, birds will even eat peanut butter, but try to make it as pure as possible as some additives can be harmful to smaller birds.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Why don’t birds have teeth?
This is an excellent question, and no one is really sure of the answer. Birds are descended from dinosaurs, and their ancestors had plenty of sharp teeth. Why they lost them over time is not really known, but there are several theories. One is that teeth made it harder for them to fly, as they could be quite heavy. Imagine a smaller bird trying to fly with a bill full of teeth, and that could drastically affect their aerodynamics.
Why do some birds have ‘toothed’ in their name?
This may be down to how they trap their food. Birds of prey, such as the double toothed kite, are not named because they have teeth.
- The double toothed kite has a double notch on the bill, and as this looks like teeth, this is how it got its name.
- Some birds of prey have what’s called a tomial tooth. This is simply a sharp ridge on their bill which is used to bite in to their prey. It is not an actual tooth.
Are there things birds can’t digest?
The digestive system of a bird will help them break down almost anything they eat. They generally know if they can or can’t eat something and will stick to foods they know they can handle.
While they can digest most things, that doesn’t mean they should. Some foods are harmful for them.
- If you put fruit out for birds, remove the pips or stones. You may think these are harmless, but they can contain cyanide.
- Just like some other creatures, birds shouldn’t eat chocolate. This contains, among other things, caffeine. This causes an increased heartbeat which can be fatal to smaller birds.
- Onions also contain a number of toxins which are harmful to birds.
- Any foods which are high in salt or fat can cause problems for birds. In moderation they are OK. Birds do need fat during the winter when there isn’t much food about, but too much fat can cause obesity and heart disease.
When you look at the diverse foods which birds eat, it’s amazing that they can consume it all without teeth. They are each uniquely designed to handle their own food, based on where they live and the foods they enjoy.
If you put food out for birds, always consider the size and shape of their bill, as this is what they will use to get to it. Their digestive system means they can handle almost everything you give them, but always be wary, and if in doubt, check that the food is suitable for them before you feed them.