With such eye-catching plumage and an abundance of fascinating behaviors to observe, it’s not often that we get a good look at a bird’s feet. However, the avian hindlimb has evolved into an impressive array of shapes and sizes, and you can tell a lot about a bird’s diet, ecology, and behavior just by looking at its toes.
In this guide, we’ll examine the surprising diversity of bird foot shapes and toe arrangements, and connect the dots with how they’re used in everyday life.
The anisodactyl foot is the most common toe arrangement in modern birds. Nearly nine out of ten bird species have an opposing rear digit (hallux) and three separated forward-facing toes. This foot type is ideal for perching, walking, and hopping and is also useful for grasping prey. Look out for anisodactyl feet on everything from tiny Chickadees and Wrens to Golden Eagles!
The zygodactyl foot differs in having two digits facing forward and two digits facing backward, forming an ‘X’ shape. This foot has a stronger grip than the anisodactyl arrangement and is typical of climbing birds like Woodpeckers that must maintain a firm grasp on tree trunks.
The Anisodactyl foot is the most common toe arrangement in modern birds
The Zygodactyl foot differs in having two digits facing forward and two digits facing backward, forming an ‘X’ shape
The palmate foot of water birds is much like the anisodactyl foot but with one radical difference. The three forward-facing digits have a strong membrane of skin between them, creating a much larger surface area for pushing against water when swimming.
Webbed feet work in the same way as a scuba diver’s fins, and while they do decrease walking ability on land, Geese, Gulls, and many other water birds can move around and forage on dry ground.
The totipalmate toe arrangement is similar to the palmate foot, except the hallux faces forward along with the other three digits, and webbing between each toe creates a very efficient ‘paddle.’ Highly aquatic birds like Pelicans, Cormorants, and Gannets have this toe arrangement.
Palmate Feet. Webbed feet work in the same way as a scuba diver’s fins
Totipalmate Feet. Webbing between each toe creates a very efficient ‘paddle’
Grebes and Coots, which are also highly aquatic birds, have evolved another way of increasing the surface area of their feet. These diving birds have flattened lobes on their toes that flare out rigidly during the thrust-generating backstroke but fold closed to minimize drag on the recovery stroke.
Raptors, like Hawks and Eagles, have specialized feet for capturing and subduing their prey. These predators generally have anisodactyl toes, although their feet are large and robust, with massive hooked talons. These birds can walk and even run, although their feet are best suited for perching.
The arrangement of bird toes is not the only adaptation seen in avian legs and feet. Continue reading to discover how birds’ legs have evolved to suit different habitats.
Lobate Feet. Grebes and Coots, which are also highly aquatic birds, have evolved another way of increasing the surface area of their feet
Raptorial Feet. Raptors, like Hawks and Eagles, have specialized feet for capturing and subduing their prey
Wading birds have the longest legs in the bird world, and species like Stilts and Flamingos are comically tall. Much of that height comes from the tarsometatarsus, the fused foot bone that people often mistake for the shin. Many shorebirds confine their foraging to dry land, but those that stride out into the water have evolved very long legs to keep their bellies above the surface.
Most tree-dwelling birds have anisodactyl toe arrangements and relatively short legs. These birds generally fly from perch to perch, although they also hop along branches or shuffle sideways. Woodpeckers spend much of their time climbing along vertical tree trunks or even clinging upside down. These birds have evolved zygodactyl feet for a more powerful and balanced grip.
Ground birds have robust feet that they use for locomotion and foraging. Most species are very quick on their toes and often run from danger, even though they are quite capable of flight. Their diets vary, but many species also use their feet and claws to scratch and dig for roots, insects, and other hidden food sources.
Much like waders have evolved long legs to walk through water, some tall ground birds have developed long legs for walking through grass. The Secretarybird, an unusual raptor from Africa, is an interesting example. These birds walk through the grass and scrub of open plains and use their powerful legs to stomp on snakes and other prey animals.
A Secretarybird. Some tall ground birds have developed long legs for walking through grass
Raptors and Owls use their feet to capture and immobilize their prey. These birds hit their prey hard, and the needle-sharp, curved talon on each toe may impale their target, causing significant injury. However, their grip strength is what ultimately kills many of their victims by suffocation.
Kingfishers have an interesting toe arrangement called syndactyly, where two of their three forward-facing toes are partially fused. This is thought to aid in grip, which could be important for birds that perch on smooth, steeply angled reeds with wet feet.
Some birds tear into flowers to access nectar, but there are specialist species that use their bills to access this sweet treat with less damage.
Hummingbirds have evolved incredible hovering and backward flying abilities that allow them to feed on nectar without even stopping to perch! The Sunbirds of Africa and Asia have a similar diet but prefer to perch on the flower while feeding.
Birds that feed on the ground have a variety of food shapes, depending on their foraging strategy. Species that descend to feed on carrion and seeds may have feet better suited to perching and may move by walking or hopping.
Birds that spend most of their time on the ground are often much faster on their feet. Roadrunners even have the speed to chase down fast desert lizards and rodents. Other ground birds use their feet like shovels to unearth grubs and underground plant structures.
A Greater Roadrunner. Birds that spend most of their time on the ground are often much faster on their feet
Many bird species strut their stuff in the mating season with elaborate displays and dances. Some develop colorful legs and feet, while others use their feet in more creative ways.
Research using high-speed footage has uncovered the rapid tap-dancing courtship behaviors of male and female Blue-capped Cordon-bleus.
Birds’ feet are used in various aspects of nest construction, from flattening vegetation to digging dirt. Let’s take a look at some interesting examples of the roles of feet in nest construction:
Birds use their legs for thermoregulation in some interesting ways. The feet and legs of most birds are unfeathered, making them effective surfaces for heat exchange.
King Penguins. King and Emperor Penguins incubate their eggs on their feet to protect them from the cold ground
The modern avian foot is the product of millions of years of evolution. Whether they’re used for tap-dancing, nest-building, or sprinting through desert scrub, each is ideally adapted for the ecology and habits of its species.
The variation in toe arrangement is one of the most striking differences between different bird families, and this is something you can observe anywhere from your backyard to a local pond or even at a pet store.
Next time you’re out birding, look down at birds’ feet to uncover more clues about their way of life!
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.