This is a reprisal of a post from fall of 2019 … it was fun to research some burning questions about bird anatomy and I thought it was worthy of sharing again! I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
A few days ago, a friend and I were having a conversation about whether birds have tongues, and if so, whether they have taste buds. Of course … a perfectly normal conversation! What? You don’t discuss such things? Anyway, naturally the question kept burning in my mind, keeping me awake far into the wee hours, and I simply had to satisfy my curiosity. Well … turns out they do have tongues, and this ferruginous hawk just had to prove the point!Just as birds come in all different shapes, sizes and varieties, so do their tongues — long tongues, short tongues, spiky tongues, curly tongues, forked tongues, frayed tongues, brush-like tongues. Care to take a look at a few?
These hummingbirds have forked tongues that are rolled up inside their beaks until submerged in liquid, at which time they partly unfurl. As the hummingbird drinks, the forks of his tongue furl and unfurl, so it’s almost as if he is drinking through two straws.
Isn’t this guy pretty? He’s a purple honeycreeper (looks blue to me) and has a very long tongue, to enable him to drink nectar from flowers (or the hummingbird feeder you have on the back porch).Woodpeckers also have very long tongues that are also sharp and spiky … the better to get the bugs out of the holes in trees! And here you thought they just liked waking you at 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday! This guy decided to take the easy way out, though, and drink from the hummingbird feeder.While we’ve established that birds do have tongues, what they don’t have is teeth, so birds of prey, such as fish-eating birds, have tongues with little rear-facing hooks or spikes to prevent a captured fish from slipping away from them. Penguins have very spiky and partially keratinized tongues, meaning that parts of the tongue are made strong and stiff by keratin.
Geese and ducks also have spiky tongues, as well as hairy tongues and tongues with hard flat surfaces that, from a distance, seem to resemble a human’s tongue. However, they are really nothing like our tongues, for they are covered with hairs and spikes that act like a sieve, allowing the bird to filter food particles from the water.
So, we’ve seen that birds have tongues, but do they have taste buds? Now, this whole conversation started because my friend’s budgie had stopped liking one food that he was once very fond of, and nearly gobbled another that he never used to like at all. Turns out that yes, birds do have taste buds, but not very many, and not on their tongues, but rather in their bills!Taste buds in birds haven’t been the subject of much research, so not as much is known, but what is known is that birds have far fewer taste buds than we humans. Depending on the species, birds may have fewer than 50 or up to roughly 500 taste buds, while humans have 9,000-10,000 taste buds. Birds can taste sweet, sour and bitter flavors, and they learn which of those tastes are the most suitable and nutritious food sources. The sensitivity to different tastes varies by species, but most birds use other senses—sight and hearing most prominently—to locate the best foods.
And now you know more than you ever thought you wanted to know about birds’ mouths! Hope you enjoyed the pictures and the mini-lesson! Now go forth and have a fun & wonderful weekend, my friends!
For more fun reading about birds and their mouths, here are the sources I used:
Let’s talk about bird tongues (Research on Dark-eyed Juncos and why animals do what they do)
Bird Senses and How They Use Them (The Spruce)
How Do Birds Taste Their Food? (Audubon)