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why are parrots beaks curved?

Why Do Parrots Have Curved Beaks? (Hookbills)

(Last Updated On: April 26, 2023)

A curved beak is an indispensable part of a parrot’s anatomy. Any bird that doesn’t have a curved beak, also known as a hookbill, isn’t a psittacine (part of the parrot family).

A parrot has a curved beak primarily due to its wild diet. Birds that eat soft fruits and insects have straight beaks, known as softbills. Hookbill birds, like parrots, have a completely different diet, including hard-skinned fruits and nuts with tough exterior shells.

Their bills also have stronger bite force than softbills, enabling a parrot to defend itself from predators and help with climbing trees and digging (if necessary).

The upper bill is known as the rhinotheca, and the lower bill is called the gnathotheca. These two bills must remain aligned so the parrot can close its mouth and perform essential day-to-day functions.

Anatomy of A Parrot’s Beak

A bird can immediately be identified as part of the parrot family by looking at its beak. A parrot’s short, curved beak is called a hookbill, a shape unique to the Psittaciformes order.

A parrot’s beak is divided into 2 bills. The rhinotheca is the upper bill and, unlike other birds, isn’t connected to the skull. A joint called the craniofacial hinge separates the skull and rhinotheca.

This separation gives a parrot superior dexterity when manipulating objects held in the beak and gives parrots a greater bite force than most other birds. For example, a bigger parrot, like a macaw, can bite with a pressure of up to 500 PSI.

The rhinotheca also contains the parrot’s cere, a fleshy part of the beak that hosts the nares (nostrils). The bottom of a parrot’s rhinotheca also hosts the tomium, the sharp, cutting edge of the beak that a parrot uses to break down food into bite-sized chunks.

The lower bill is called the gnathotheca. This is invariably smaller than the rhinotheca, with the upper bill curving down over the gnathotheca. These 2 bills are connected by a commissure, nerve tissue found in the corner of a parrot’s mouth.

Both the rhinotheca and gnathotheca are covered by the rhamphotheca, which is a hard shell constructed from the protein keratin. This coating protects a parrot’s beak and the muscles within, including the maxilla (upper jaw) and mandible (lower jaw.)

A parrot’s beak never stops growing and can become misaligned through injury or sickness.

what is the function of the curved beak?

Why Are Parrot’s Beaks Curved?

We have established that a hookbill is the sole reserve of parrots, but what is the function of the curved beak? There are 3 reasons for a hookbill, all of which are essential to survival in the wild.

Crushing Objects

The primary purpose of a hookbill is sourcing and crushing preferred food sources.

A parrot’s formidable beak can break open the coating of fruits and drupes, including shells as tough as that surround a walnut or coconut.

Parrots place food in their beaks and use the flexibility of the rhinotheca to position it in an ideal location. Due to the impressive bite force of a parrot, this shell will usually be removed in one motion, releasing the fruit, seeds, or liquid within.

The thin, sharp tip of a parrot’s beak can also access smaller, hard-to-access seeds, which are then dropped onto the bird’s tongue.


Although parrots have wings, and all species except the kākāpō of New Zealand enjoy the ability to fly, they also climb trees in the wild. Climbing is a great exercise for parrots, enabling them to negotiate densely-leaved trees quickly and safely.

According to the Proceedings of the Royal Society, parrots use their beaks for ‘tripedal locomotion.’.

A parrot’s hooked beak acts as a third limb, capable of supporting a parrot’s body weight when hooked into a tree trunk, supported by powerful head and neck muscles.

A parrot’s beak can propel the bird upward with force equal to an expert human climber or primate.

Parrots use their hookbill like humans use their arms to distribute weight when scaling a surface, with the forward-facing toes maintaining grip and allowing the bird to continue climbing.

This behavior will also be replicated in captivity. Many parrots enjoy rope climbing toys or may be seen scaling the horizontal bars of a cage if size allows.

Grooming and Preening

The flexibility of a parrot’s hooked beak makes it considerably easier for these birds to clean their feathers and retain a pleasing appearance. The long, sharp tip of the rhinotheca can be used to pluck dirt, grime, and even parasites from a parrot’s body and wings.

Grooming and preening can be critical to a wild parrot’s survival. As per Behavioral Ecology, parrots seeking acceptance into a wild flock may groom existing members to gain trust while learning unique contact calls and earning a permanent place in the community.

Regular grooming using the delicate hookbill can also help parrots find a mate in the wild. When considering breeding, female parrots assess the appearance of an aspiring mate. If the bird has parasites or dull feathers, it’s perceived as being unlikely to produce healthy offspring.

Clean, bright, and strong feathers denote good health and a robust immune system. Females will find these traits desirable in males, increasing the likelihood of acceptance.

why are birds beaks different shapes?

Why are Birds’ Beaks Different Shapes?

The shape of a bird’s beak is frequently defined by its dietary needs. This includes parrots with curved beaks to ensure they can eat preferred foods and flourish in their natural habitat.

Different types of beaks of birds and their uses include:

  • Sparrows, finches, and other common garden birds have short, conical beaks to access seeds.
  • Robins and hummingbirds have long, thin beaks for insects from flowers or the ground.
  • Ducks and swans have broad, flat beaks that filter dirt from the water.
  • Pelicans and seagulls have long, large beaks that enable them to get fish from the water.

While birds of prey also have hooked beaks, raptors are rarely considered hookbills. One exception is the falcon, which is closer in DNA and ancestry to a parrot than a hawk or eagle.

Most wild birds visit a backyard, and other common pet birds, like canaries,  have softbill beaks. Unlike those of a parrot, these beaks are typically long and thin, not curved.

Softbill vs. Hookbill Birds

The hookbill shape of a parrot’s beak is unique and not replicated in other orders.

Although Nature Communications confirms that parrots are a sister taxonomy to birds in the Passeriformes order, which includes all perching birds, these close relations have softbills.

Despite the name, softbills aren’t weaker than hookbills. The name comes from the food that birds with softbill beaks prefer. Birds with softbill beaks sustain themselves on seeds, flowers, light fruits, plants, and live insects – all ‘soft’ foods in terms of texture.

While hookbill birds can also eat these foods, they don’t make the core diet of a wild parrot. Instead, wild parrots feed on nuts and tougher seeds, with their beaks evolving in size and shape to make this possible. In addition, softbill birds don’t climb.

The hookbill of a parrot is an essential adaptation for its survival, enabling it to eat well and climb. While a captive parrot isn’t as reliant on a hookbill for survival, this unique aesthetic remains a core component.