All birds of prey have strong, curved beaks with sharp edges. They use their beaks like we might use a knife and fork: to cut their food, to eat, and to feed their young. Though raptor beaks all share certain characteristics, there is some variation in beak size, shape, and function among different species.
This is tougher than it looks, so thankfully birds of prey have a special tool to help. At hatching, they are equipped with an egg tooth – a pointy knob on the top of their beaks. They use this egg tooth to make the first crack or hole in the eggshell. After that initial break, they use the egg tooth to continue tapping their way out, a process that can sometimes take up to three days. A short time after hatching, the egg tooth disappears.
As they grow older, their beaks become stronger and stronger, eventually strong enough to tear meat. Until then, they use their beaks to beg for food. Holding their beaks open and making a chirping sound lets their parents know they are hungry!
Other raptors need a bit more than just their beaks and feet to help them get the food they need. The Bearded Vulture feeds primarily on bones of medium to large animals. Though its beak is strong, it is not strong enough to break into the bones, which make up about 80% of this vulture’s diet. To solve this dilemma, the Bearded Vulture carries the bones high up into the sky, then drops them onto rocks far below, until the bones break into pieces small enough for the vulture to swallow.
Another vulture, the Egyptian Vulture, has evolved a different method to feed on one of its favorite foods: ostrich eggs. This tool-using raptor first breaks the eggshell with a rock, then uses its beak to do the rest.
Like birds of prey themselves, beaks come in all shapes and sizes. As you can imagine, big birds tend to have bigger beaks and small birds smaller beaks, but there is more to it than that. Before we go into detail about the differences between beaks, let’s think about all the types of bird beaks there are and why they are all so different. Herons, which are not birds of prey, eat fish and frogs among many other things. They have long pointed beaks like a sword that they use to spear their prey. Parrots, also not raptors, have extra strong beaks designed for cracking hard nuts and seeds. And hummingbirds, most definitely not birds of prey, have elongated, narrow bills to accommodate their long tongues as they probe flowers for nectar.
Quite clearly, what a bird eats has a big influence on the shape and size of its beak, and the type of beak a bird has determines, in part, what it can eat. Birds of prey are no different.
Next time you see a raptor, pay close attention. Looking at the size and shape of its beak will give you clues about what it eats!