Learning About Birds, Part 4: Feet

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Aren’t birds fascinating creatures? I love to watch them at my feeders. This week I had a brown thrasher, a common grackle, and a mourning dove on the ground beneath my feeders. The dove plodded along the ground slowly, looking as if it had not a care in the world. The grackle was intently looking for seeds. I’m not sure what got into the thrasher, but all of a sudden it jumped and twisted in the air like I’ve seen my cats do when they’ve been startled. It was so funny! Perhaps that’s why it’s called a “thrasher?” Anyway, I’ve learned a lot as I’ve been working on this series, and I hope you have too!

bird unit study, learning about birds, birds' feet, bird nature study, homeschool, homeschooling

Last time, we looked at bird beaks, and saw that birds who eat different foods need different beaks to allow them to get what they need. A duck’s bill, for example, is very different from a chicken’s beak. Well, the same thing is true for their feet. The cool thing is, once you’ve identified what kind of beak they have, and what kind of feet, you can make an educated guess about their diet and habitat.

Let’s look at a few different types of birds, and their feet, so you can see what I mean.

Chicken Versus Duck Feet

The fabulous Handbook of Nature Study, which is my go-to nature study reference, uses chickens and ducks, again, to compare form and function of feet. These two birds are almost complete opposites. A chicken has blunt claws, good for scratching and digging in the dirt, and for grasping on to a perch for roosting. Chickens run quickly, too. Have you ever tried to catch one? It’s not easy! Not that I would ever chase a chicken… ahem. Ducks, on the other hand, have webbed feet, which make great paddles for swimming. Their legs are spaced quite widely on their bodies, which makes them waddle when they walk on land and rather awkward. In the water, though, they are so graceful! Their flat, webbed feet distribute their weight so they don’t sink into soft, wet soil near water. It’s easy to see, from looking at these to birds, how their feet are perfectly suited to their lifestyles.

There are other kinds of bird feet, too. The most common kind of birds you will see at a feeder is a perching bird. Why do you think that is? Well, let’s take a look at one:

american-goldfinches-613469_1280 (1)

The goldfinches in the picture above have perching feet. Do you see how they have three toes in front and one behind, and they’ve both got good grasps on their perches? I just read that perching birds can sleep while perched on a branch, because a tendon in their rear claw automatically tightens on their perch so they can’t fall off. In general, birds that eat seeds are perching birds. That allows them to sit on the branch of a plant or tree (or a bird feeder perch) and eat the seeds.

Another interesting bird is a heron. Check out the feet on this bird:

Heron with wading feet

Not only does a wading bird, such as a heron, have long legs, they also have long toes that spread out and distribute their weight so they don’t sink into wet sand or mud. That’s a helpful feature for birds who wade in water to catch their food, don’t you think?

Finally, check out the feet on this hawk:

Hawk with talons

Do you remember when we talked about raptors’ sharp beaks, made for tearing meat? Well, they have those wicked-looking talons, too, which hold on tightly as they catch, kill and carry their prey.

After looking at these birds’ feet, and remembering what we learned about their beaks from last time, let’s talk about diet and habitat:

  • Chickens eat mostly seeds and bugs. I have no idea if there is such a thing as a wild chicken – I only know chickens that live in captivity and are fed seeds. They find their own bugs on the ground
  • Ducks eat aquatic plants. They live in wetlands habitats, like rivers, lakes, and marshes. They will also settle near man-made water sources, in parks etc.
  • Goldfinches eat seeds. They live near grassy areas.
  • Herons eat other animals, including fish, amphibians, insects, reptiles, and even small mammals and other birds. They live near water, in both fresh and saltwater habitats.
  • Hawks eat meat. The red-tailed hawk, for example, eats mostly small mammals and lives in any open habitat where it can see its prey running along the ground. A Cooper’s hawk, shown in the picture above, eats mostly other birds, including chickens.

Here are some links that will help you learn a bit more about birds and their feet:

  • All About Birds – This is a fabulous website for learning more about birds! They have pictures, recordings of birds’ songs, and even videos.
  • Bird Feet from the Fernbank Science Center – See pictures and learn about different kinds of bird feet, then try the “Whose Foot Is This?” activity!
  • Bird Beaks and Feet from Biology Corner – There is a fun table to fill out to see if you can determine from looking at a bird’s beak and feet, where it lives and what it eats.
  • Here is a free Bird Study notebooking page for you!

I’d love to have you come visit me at Acorn Hill Academy for discussions on nature study, Charlotte Mason and books.

What kinds of birds do you see where you live? Have you been able to find identify any new-to-you species?

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