Birds have many different types, shapes, and sizes of tongues, depending upon the species, and what they eat. Birds don’t have teeth, and that means that the tongue is very important.
A human tongue is a muscle. A bird tongue is a muscle too, but tougher and harder than a human tongue. Birds have five bones in their tongue. These bones are known as the hyoid apparatus. The five bones are: paraglossals, basihyale, urohyale, ceratobranchiate, and epibranchiate.
The hyoid apparatus defines the shape of the tongue, but it also controls its movement and ability to extend and retract. The paraglossum is embedded in the tongue and can either be an unpaired bone or two bones fused together. This bone determines what the tongue looks like – if it is well developed then the tongue will be thick and fleshy, and if it is mostly cartilage then the tongue will be small.
Some birds have papillae on their tongue. Papillae are the hair-like or barb-like structures found on the tongue that help the bird keep its food on its tongue. The papillae are usually rear-facing so that the bird can still swallow air. Geese, Quail and Birds of Prey have a papillae crest, which is a V-shaped row of papillae that point backwards.
If a bird eats nectar from flowers and plants, it will have a nectarine tongue. The Oriental White Eye has a thin tongue with a brush-like tip so that it can be dabbed on the flowers to absorb the nectar. The Sunbird has a long, tubular tongue, with 2-3 branches at the tip to help it suck up nectar.
If a bird eats fish, it will have a smaller, shorter tongue so that it doesn’t get in the way when it’s eating a whole fish. Pelicans and Cormorants have small tongues. The penguin has a spiny tongue which keeps its food moving. The penguin has sharp serrations on its tongue and in its beak and cheeks.
If a bird eats seeds and nuts, it will have a muscular, dexterous tongue. Parrots have a muscular tongue that holds onto seeds and nuts.
If a bird eats bones and bone marrow, it will have a grooved tongue. Vultures have a grooved tongue. The grooved shape helps it to push the food into its throat as quickly as possible.
If a bird doesn’t tilt its heads back when it is drinking, it will have a piston-like tongue. Flamingos and pigeons have piston-like tongues that push water into their mouths.
If a bird eats grubs and insects, it will either have a sticky tongue to trap them or it will have small barbs or hooks on the tip of its tongue to impale them. Woodpeckers and other types of birds that grab their prey out of holes and crevices have sticky or barbed tongues. When they stick their tongue in the hole, it acts like glue and insects stick to it.
The bird with the longest tongue is the Northern Flicker Woodpecker found in North America. Its tongue is 13 centimetres (5 inches) long. It eats insects out of tree holes and cavities.
Photographer: Martina Nicolls
Martina Nicolls: SIMILAR BUT DIFFERENT IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM