Birds have many different shapes and sizes to their feet. Like the shape of the bill, the anatomy of birds’ feet tells us much about the ecology of different species of birds. Below are several examples of birds feet and what each one can tell us about the group of birds who possess them.
Birds have amazing feet that are much different than ours. Most people think that a bird’s knee bends backward, but in fact what we think looks like a knee is actually the bird’s ankle/heel joint. The knee is hidden under feathers close to the bird’s body. Since everything under the ankle is the foot, it is easy to see that a bird actually walks on its toes. (See diagram at right)
Another name for a bird’s toe is a digit. When comparing a bird’s digit with our toes, the first digit would be our big toe. The second digit would be the next toe and so on. Birds are missing the fifth digit or our little toe. In fact, some birds have only three toes, and the Ostrich has only two.
The above diagram is of a typical bird foot, such as a Blue Jay. This type of foot is called anisodactyl. The bird’s first digit (our big toe) is positioned at the back behind the other digits. The second digit is the inner toe, the third digit is the middle toe, and the fourth digit is the outside toe.
This is only one type of toe arrangement in birds. Scroll down the page to learn about various other types of bird feet.
This is the most common foot in the bird world. It is found in birds such as robins, jays, and chickadees. The first digit (also called the hallux) faces backward while the other three digits point forwards. This type of foot can be found on most birds that regularly perch.
This unique foot can be found on woodpeckers, owls, most parrots, and other birds. It is the second most common toe arrangement. In this foot, the first (hallux) and fourth digit face backward while the second and third digit faces forwards.
In woodpeckers, this type of foot is excellent for clinging to the trunks of trees. The tow toes in the back give the bird more support. For parrots, this type of foot is excellent for holding food. Parrots often feed by holding their food in one foot and bringing the food up to their beak, just like we use our hands to eat. Although owls have this toe arrangement, they have the special ability to rotate their fourth digit to the front. This helps the owl perch, hold its food, and grab its prey.
This foot’s second digit face backwards while the third and fourth digit face forward. This unique toe arrangement is only found in trogons.
This foot has two toes that are fused together, digits 2 and 3. Kingfishers have this type of foot.
In this foot, all four toes can be moved to the front. The first and fourth digits can be rotated from the front to the back. Swifts have this type of foot which helps them cling to vertical surfaces such as the inside of a chimney.
Some birds are missing their first digit, also called the hallux. This is the case for the Northern Three-toed Woodpecker.
The Ostrich is the only bird to have this type of foot. Didactyl simply means “two-toed”. It does not have anything to do with the arrangement of the toes.