A curved beak (hookbill) is among the defining physical characteristics of psittacine birds. More than just aesthetics, parrots’ beaks perform functions essential to their survival.
Their prominent, elongated beaks are made up of two different bones. The upper beak is called the premaxillary bone, and the lower beak is the mandibular bone.
Parrots’ beaks comprise bone and layers of beta-keratin (a type of protein) that are added to over time. As the upper keratin layers wear away, new and healthy layers replace them.
The beak contains nerves and blood vessels, making it a relatively sensitive area.
While parrots must wear down their beaks gradually over time through interaction with abrasive surfaces, injuries can inhibit the functionality of the beak or stop it from working entirely.
What Do Parrots Use Their Beaks For?
A bird must maintain a healthy beak because it relies on it to live a full-and-active life. Consider the beak a parrot’s third vital appendage alongside its feet, compensating for not having hands.
Here’s why this part of the bird’s anatomy is so important:
If a parrot is a skilled communicator, it’ll form sounds through the syrinx (avian voice box) and release the sounds through the beak. Even if a parrot doesn’t speak, it communicates with its beak.
If a parrot grinds its beak, the bird is in a good mood and happy with life. The parrot may also click its beak once as a greeting when you enter the room.
A single click is a sign of contentment, but multiple clicks can be a warning of agitation.
Look for additional body language that denotes annoyance, like puffing the feathers, expanding the wings, pinning the eyes, and hissing or growling.
Parrots may also open their beaks to yawn, which is usually a sign that the parrot is calm and happy. Many parrots use yawning to reassure other birds that they pose no threat.
Ensure this yawn is silent. If the bird gasps for breath with an open beak, it’s feeling unwell.
A parrot’s beak is indispensable to eating, serving multiple purposes. Eating and hydrating become increasingly difficult if a parrot experiences health concerns with its beak.
Large parrots have strong beaks that can crack open the shells of nuts. Smaller species, like lovebirds, will struggle to do so but still need their beaks to eat.
If a food morsel is small enough to be picked up using the sharp tip of the parrot’s beak, it’ll use this to drop the food onto the tongue.
Once the food is in the parrot’s mouth, taste buds at the back of the throat and roof of the mouth will detect whether it is edible.
If so, ridges called tomium alongside the upper beak (rhinotheca) and lower beak (gnathotheca) grind food until it is small enough to swallow without choking.
A parrot will not only use its beak to feed itself but also to provide nourishment to other birds.
As we will discuss, this can be part of a courtship ritual when a parrot wishes to mate. More commonly, parrots feed chicks using their beak.
When a parrot hatchling emerges from an egg, it’ll be blind, deaf, and devoid of feathers. Baby chicks are wholly defenseless and rely on their mothers for protection and feeding.
When a parrot lays eggs, she’ll gravitate toward softer food that can be regurgitated to feed hatchlings.
When a chick is hungry, it’ll bob its head, open its beak, and vocally beg for food. The mother will heed these cries and regurgitate food from her beak directly into a chick’s mouth.
This will continue until the chick fledges, at which point it will be weaned.
Parrot beaks contain nares, two nostril-like openings on either side of the base of the rhinotheca.
The nares are primarily used to inhale air, which is transferred to the respiratory system, but they also have olfactory nerves that detect scent.
Birds don’t have a good sense of smell, but Integrative Zoology discovered that parrots could determine different aromas, using this sense to determine if food is edible during foraging.
BioOne explains how birds release pheromones and chemical signals, which are evident to other birds, although this paper only directly namechecks the kākāpō from the psittacine family.
A parrot’s beak plays a vital role in preening. Parrots work hard to organize their feathers for efficient flight and maintain an aesthetically pleasing appearance to attract mates.
Parrot feathers are made from keratin, ensuring they constantly regrow and replenish over time.
Parrots organically shed and molt feathers at least once a year, sometimes twice. This removes old, damaged feathers to make way for healthy replacements.
A parrot may expedite molting by removing some feathers with the beak. The sharp tip of the beak will make it easy to tug out a loose feather, exposing the follicle so a new pin feather can grow in its place.
Ensure that a parrot only removes dead feathers using the beak and does not actively pluck healthy feathers. Feather-destructive behavior can cause permanent damage.
Parrot beaks contain blood vessels and nerve endings, so they can use their beak to feel objects and explore new and unfamiliar terrain. Rubbing the beak can reveal a lot about an obstacle in a parrot’s path.
Similar to human infants, parrots explore the world with their beaks. Parrots wanting to investigate a new or unfamiliar object may bite or chew on it to learn more about it.
Why do parrots climb when they can fly? One answer is energy conservation. It takes significantly less effort for a parrot to climb than to take to the air.
Climbing is also a recreational exercise. The Journal of Experimental Biology explains that parrots use their beaks instead of hands, using the beak to gain a safe hold on a surface and pull their body weight.
Parrots use their beaks to manipulate objects in their surroundings.
Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences explains how, alongside corvids, psittacines use their beaks to overcome problems and obstacles, play games, and solve puzzles.
The rhinotheca and gnathotheca of a parrot are pliable and flexible. Neither bill is fused to the skull, and the commissure joint separates them.
This enables a parrot to manipulate objects, opening its beak and picking up items to move them.
While parrots don’t bite for no reason, they’re not averse to using their beaks to defend themselves. If a parrot is afraid or annoyed, it may bite if other warnings are ignored.
How much a bite hurts depends on the species and intent. Small parrots, like budgies, aren’t capable of causing damage with a bite, while larger parrots, like macaws, can exert considerable bite force.
Don’t mistake biting for beaking, which involves carefully clasping the beak around a body part to maintain balance when exploring the world around them.
Beaking the fingers is common when a parrot lands on your hand and wants to avoid toppling over.
If a male parrot wants to breed with a female, it’ll regurgitate food into the beak of its partner. This demonstrates an ability to provide for the female and their offspring.
A parrot’s beak is a multi-purpose tool with many uses. Everything from climbing to picking up food to preening would be impossible without a beak.