Just like we eat our food to gather the nutrients we need to survive, birds have evolved to process a diverse range of natural foods using a sophisticated digestive system. Each species has its own dietary preferences and a digestive system ideally suited to the physical and chemical properties of its food.
During its journey through the avian digestive tract, food is moistened, softened, pulverized, chemically dismantled, and then absorbed for storage and use in cells. This is an efficient process, which is vital for creatures with such high metabolic rates.
There’s much more to learn about the avian digestive system. Read on for a general overview of this life-sustaining process.
The primary role of a bird’s beak is collecting and ingesting food. It has evolved into a wonderful variety of forms, each adapted to a particular diet or foraging technique.
Birds can use their beaks to process their food to some degree (e.g., removing seed husks, plucking feathers, etc.), although they lack teeth and cannot chew their food.
Once in the mouth or oral cavity, food is tasted to a varying degree and lubricated with saliva before being swallowed. Carnivorous birds require little saliva as their food is easy to swallow, but species that eat dry foods may have large salivary glands.
Once swallowed, food enters the tube-shaped esophagus, destined for the stomach or, in some cases, a connected chamber called the crop. Some birds extend their neck to assist in swallowing, but all species use wave-like muscular contractions known as peristalsis to pass the food along.
Food held in the crop may begin to be digested after contact with enzymes in the mouth, but this organ is most important for storing and softening food before passing it on to the stomach. A full crop is often visible as a bulge on the bird’s throat/breast.
Birds have a two-chambered stomach where food digestion properly begins. The first part is the proventriculus, or glandular stomach, where enzymes start to break up the food through chemical action. The second chamber is the ventriculus or gizzard, which grinds the food through muscular action.
After leaving the stomach, food enters the small intestine, where the bulk of digestion and nutrient absorption occurs. The remaining indigestible material is passed on through the large intestine, where water and salts are removed, and waste is compacted before excretion through the cloaca.
A Plain Prinia feeding on a worm. The primary role of a bird’s beak is collecting and ingesting food
Birds have a two-lobed liver that plays an essential role in digestion. The liver secretes a substance known as bile, which collects in the gall bladder before being released into the small intestine. Bile is important for the digestion of fat.
The avian pancreas is a critical accessory organ that controls blood sugar levels through the production of insulin and glucagon. It also secretes a fluid that neutralizes the acidity of partially digested food and contains important digestive enzymes like amylase (carbohydrate digestion), lipase (fat digestion), and protease (protein digestion).
Birds use their crops primarily for food storage and softening, although some species have more specialized uses. Some birds use their crops to produce nutritious food for their growing chicks. Pigeon squabs, Flamingo chicks, and some baby Penguins are fed crop milk during early development.
The Hoatzin, a unique herbivorous bird from South America, uses its large crop for fermenting foliage. Bacteria in the crop produce volatile fatty acids which nourish the bird. This process also occurs to a lesser extent in Mousebirds and the flightless Kakapo parrot.
Birds lost their teeth over a hundred million years ago, shifting their center of mass and reducing their body weight in the process. However, many species still need a way to grind up their food for effective digestion.
Muscular contractions and a tough koilin lining of the gizzard pulverize their food, but birds also swallow grit and stones to increase the mechanical grinding action.
These stones are known as gastroliths and may be held in the gizzard for long periods, becoming smooth and rounded from abrasion.
Bird intestines vary significantly across species depending on their diet. Herbivorous species have long, coiled intestines, while carnivores have shorter and less coiled small intestines. Many birds also have a pair of ceca that connect to the intestines. These are particularly well-developed in herbivorous birds that rely on bacterial fermentation.
The Hoatzin, a unique herbivorous bird from South America, uses its large crop for fermenting foliage
In a nutshell, avian digestion can be described as a process of mechanical and chemical breakdown, nutrient, mineral, and water absorption, and excretion of indigestible waste.
However, it is a highly complex process involving multiple organs, hormones, enzymes, and physiological processes. Passage through the digestive tract can occur in as little as forty minutes in Hummingbirds and small songbirds or take as long as six hours in the mighty African Ostrich.
Birds have evolved efficient digestive systems to reduce the mass of food in the gut and decrease the time needed to process it. Some foods, like fruits and nectar, are easily digested, while leafy plant material creates a greater challenge.
While Hummingbirds are able to maintain an extraordinarily high metabolic rate by feeding on sugary nectar, Geese must eat large volumes of food to extract the most easily available nutrients from their low-energy diet. The Goose’s inefficient feeding strategy requires high food intake and results in frequent (every 3-5 minutes) defecation.
There are important differences in the digestive systems and processes of vegetarian and predatory birds. Structurally, herbivorous birds tend to have larger digestive systems, with longer intestines and larger ceca.
The processes within the digestive tract also differ considerably between birds with different diets. Grain-eaters, for example, rely heavily on the mechanical grinding of their food in the gizzard, while raptors make more use of chemical digestion.
Some carnivorous birds tear their meal into manageable strips, but others simply swallow their prey whole. These birds regurgitate the undigestible bones and fur of their prey as pellets to reduce weight and prevent blockage or damage to the intestines.
Fruits are relatively easy to digest, although different types have varying chemical properties. Some wild fruits and berries are highly toxic to humans but perfectly safe for birds that consume them and disperse their seeds. This is possible because many frugivorous birds have large livers for processing plant toxins, while others ingest clay to neutralize poisonous chemicals.
Nectar is even easier to digest, so nectar-feeding birds like Hummingbirds have small gizzards and short intestines. However, nectar can be highly diluted with water, so these birds need to drink large quantities and excrete frequently.
A Female African Ostrich. Passage through the digestive tract can occur in as little as forty minutes in Hummingbirds and small songbirds or take as long as six hours in the mighty African Ostrich
While the avian digestive system is comparable to our own, it also includes many unique structures, like the jawless beak, the crop, and a two-chambered stomach. The bird’s diet determines the size, length, and even presence of some of these structures since different foods require different digestive processes to unlock their nutrients.
Digestion is vital for a bird’s survival, growth, recovery, and reproduction, but it also benefits many other organisms. Through feeding and digesting, birds pollinate flowers, distribute seeds, control pest populations, and play a vital role in diverse ecosystems across the planet.
Observing and studying the avian digestive system may be out of reach for the average bird watcher, but we can all appreciate the fascinating diversity and brilliance of bird anatomy and physiology. So, next time you’re cleaning some poop off your car windshield, take a moment to consider the complex path it took to get there!
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