Monday, February 22, 2010

Bird Tongues

By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education

I love my tongue. I love it as I sing with it, taste with it, talk with it, whistle with it, or hoot with it. Just the thought of dark chocolate melting on my tongue makes me smile. Oh the joy my tongue can give me! Our human tongues are important for these reasons, but for most birds, their tongue is used for a reason that doesn’t have much to do with communication. Their tongues are used more for grasping or manipulating food. Check out these bird tongues and their functions:

• Most sadly, birds do not have tongues for tasting. Birds have the misfortune of having almost no taste buds. Chickens only have twenty-four taste buds, and parrots’ taste buds number in the hundreds.
• Most birds have a simple tongue with a flat, triangular blade with “papillae” at the back of the mouth that point backward, ensuring that their food goes in one direction. Penguins have a tongue covered with backward pointing spikes to help swallow fish.
• In cormorants, pelicans, or kingfishers, which scoop and swallow their food whole, the tongue is very small.
• Brush-tongued lories have a tongue with a small brush at the tip that they use to collect flower nectar. Hummingbirds have long, hollow tubes forked at the end into two curled channels that allow them to dip into a flower, three to twelve times a second, to lap up flower nectar. It is believed that capillary action causes the liquid to be pulled up into the troughs. When the bird retracts its tongue, pressure on the tongue squeezes the liquid out.
• For many birds, their tongues are supported by five tongue bones, bones and cartilage called the “hyoid apparatus.” Their tongue is harder and less flexible than human tongues.
• A woodpecker has a barbed tongue, with a spear-like tongue bone that can extend up to four times the length of its beak to grasp insects from a tree. Their tongue, as part of the hyoid apparatus, wraps around the skull and anchors at the base of the bill. Some have a sharp pointed top to spear wood-boring insect larvae. Others have a tongue tip that has backward pointed barbs to help extract insects from the holes, and the tongue is coated with sticky saliva to help stick to the prey. Sapsucker tongues have hair-like extensions on their tongue tips to capture sap through capillary action. In some woodpecker species, part of the hyoid process has joints between the bones of the skull and upper jaw with muscles to absorb the shock of hammering.
• Birds that feed on seeds or fruits, such as parrots, are likely to have well-padded, thicker tongues that also enable them to make sounds that we enjoy so much we often desire them as pets.
• A ducks upper bill is specialized for filtering out food from the water. They get a mouthful of water and the tongue moves the water out. A flamingo has spiny barbs on the sides of its tongue to filter out microorganisms.

“Sally sells seashells by the seashore” is a tongue twister that we all may know well, but knowledge of birds’ tongues brings an entire meaning to the concept. Be sure to watch birds around your home or feeders in a new way – you just might see their tongues at work!

For over 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and new exhibit, Our Shared Planet, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Post your own stories on the Nature Watch blog at

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