Bird Beaks What is a Bird’s Beak? A bird’s beak is a light, strong extension from the skull. It has an upper and a lower section. The beak is covered with skin that produces keratin. Keratin is the same substance that makes up our hair and fingernails. The edges of the beak wear away as they are used. Keratin is produced to cover and protect the worn places. What Does It Look Like? There are many types of bird beaks. Here are some examples of the types of beaks from birds in Illinois. Raptors, like hawks, eagles, owls, vultures and their relatives, have a hooked beak for tearing meat into chunks that can be swallowed. Herons have a spear-shaped beak for spearing or grasping slippery prey items like fishes, frogs and crayfish Pelicans have a pouched beak for scooping fishes from the water. Some ducks and geese have a beak that can strain small food items from water. The tip of the American woodcock’s (Scolopax minor) beak can catch worms in the soil. The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) has a long, tubular beak to protect its long tongue as it gathers flower nectar. Birds like northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) and rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) have a short, thick beak for cracking seeds open. Swallows and common nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) fly with their mouth open to catch insects. Their beak supports the large, wide mouth. Shorebirds have a long, thin beak for probing in mud to find food. Woodpeckers use a chisel-shaped beak for drilling in wood and for searching for insects under bark. The American robin (Turdus migratorius) is one of several bird species whose beak shape is designed to take a variety of foods How Does the Beak Help a Bird? A beak can be used for a variety of tasks. It can help the bird to defend its territory. It can be used to gather nesting materials and to build the nest. It preens the feathers. Some birds communicate by using their beak. The beak is used to gather or capture food. It assists in feeding the young birds. It can be used for scratching, courting and attacking, too. What Can You Learn by Looking at a Bird’s Beak? The shape of a beak can help you identify the bird. It can also help you determine what the bird eats. Can a Beak Break? Yes, a bird’s beak can break or crack. It is a very serious injury and usually leads to the death of the bird.