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Birds have different morphology from other vertebrates. Specifically, birds have feathers, hollow bones, and a beak. These differences in morphology mean there are some behaviors that are unique to birds. For instance, birds preen their feathers and wipe their beaks. A bird is able to wipe its beak by moving it sideways across some object. You may be curious as to why birds wipe their beaks.
Birds wipe their beaks to clean them, to trim and shape their beaks, as a method of courtship, or as a sign of affection. Birds wipe their beaks on objects, trees, and other birds for these various reasons. Beak-wiping is a behavior observed in all birds.
The reason why a bird would wipe its beak is to clean it or to help trim an overgrown beak. Beak wiping may act as a signal to other birds. Birds wipe their beaks on different objects, which can be done for several reasons, from convenience to evaluating nesting material.
Read on to learn more details about birds and why and how they wipe their beaks.
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Why Do Birds Wipe Their Beaks?
Birds are often seen engaging in beak-wiping behavior, but there has been very little research into this behavior. However, there are thought to be four main reasons why a bird wipes its beak.
1. Wiping To Clean The Beak
Having particles of food stuck on the beak is unhygienic, and it can pose a problem for a bird when it next tries to eat, so it makes sense that a bird would want to clean its beak.
There is research that demonstrated that the beak wiping behavior increases when a bird eats sticky foods compared with dry foods. This study was done on starlings, which eat a diversity of foods in the wild.
It makes sense that if birds eat juicy or sticky foods like fruits or insects, they may need to wipe their beaks more often than if they feed on dry seeds.
Cleaning the beak is important, considering how much birds use their beak. Beaks are not only used to eat and drink but also to feed offspring, to build nests, and even to peck at predators (in the case of some species such as Red-winged Blackbirds or Drongos, both species which mob hawks).
An unintended benefit of beak wiping for cleaning purposes in some birds is that it can indirectly help pollination. For example, weaver birds feed on aloe nectar, and their beaks and faces become dusted with the pollen of the plant.
As these weaver birds move from plant to plant, they tend to wipe their face and beaks off on these other Aloe plants. In this way, the birds actually transfer the pollen from one plant to another. This is one way to help further the pollination of plants.
2. Beak Wiping To Trim And Shape The Beak
The bird’s beak is made up of bone and is covered by a layer of the protein keratin. Keratin is the same protein that makes up our hair and nails. With the correct diet, many birds have no issue with an overgrown beak.
However, a good way to also ensure the keratin layer of the beak does not overgrow is to wipe or rub it on a hard object. This is easier for birds in the wild to do because they can find hard objects to rub their beak against.
Birds in captivity are more likely to have overgrown beaks because their environment is often artificial and unsuitable. Beak overgrowth in captive birds can be due to dietary issues but also due to a lack of hard objects for the bird to wipe its beak on.
This means that bird owners often have to check the bird’s diet and have the beak trimmed by a vet when it is overgrown.
3. Beak Wiping As A Signal To Conspecifics
Researchers studying songbirds have found that beak wiping may occur along with tail fanning as a part of courtship behavior. The theory is that male birds are able to more easily spread preen gland oil around by beak wiping, and that this may be detected by other males or females.
The oil is produced in the uropygial gland at the end of the tail. When birds preen, they use their beaks to spread the oil from this gland over their feathers. The behavior has been recorded in Dark-eyed Juncos when females are present, suggesting that this may help males to attract a mate.
The chemical cues from the preen oil gland could also be more generally linked to the recognition of conspecifics. In other words, it may help in recognizing if a bird of the same species is in the general area. More research is needed in this area to determine what other possible signaling roles beak wiping may have.
4. Beak Wiping As A Sign Of Courtship Or Affection
Some courtship behaviors include the two birds wiping beaks on each other. Since beak wiping or rubbing among birds is often a part of pair bonding, it is likely a way for a bird to show affection for its owner.
Thus, in some pet birds, it is thought that beak wiping can be a display of affection. The bird is reinforcing the bond with its owner.
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– National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America
– National Audubon Society Birds of North America
Why Do Birds Wipe Their Beaks On Things?
There are a couple of reasons birds choose to wipe their beaks on objects. In some cases, the choice of what to wipe the beak on may be a matter of convenience. For example, if a bird is perched on a branch, then it may use what is closest.
Wiping Beaks On Trees
Some birds can be seen wiping their beaks on trees. This can be a good way to clean the beak but also help make sure the beak is trimmed. An overgrown beak would be a hindrance in feeding. The rough bark on a tree may also help shape a beak that is getting overgrown.
The rough bark surface may function like a nail file to wear down any overgrown areas of the beak. Wiping bark on trees may also help in foraging if the bird dislodges bark in the process of beak-wiping since they may then find insects that can be eaten.
Wiping Beaks On Branches
Birds may clean their beaks by wiping them on branches. Some people suggest that a bird that wipes its beak on a branch shows aggression, but studies have not been done to confirm this theory.
Aggressive encounters more often include vocalizations and chasing behavior but could include other gestures and behaviors.
Wiping Beaks On Leaves
Wiping the beak on leaves can help clean it, which may be advantageous for birds that use leaves for their nests. For instance, weaver birds and tailor birds need to assess if leaves are suitable for nesting purposes.
Wiping or rubbing its beak along the foliage can help the bird select the perfect leaf or leaves for nesting material.
A weaver bird will wipe its beak on a leaf. The bird also runs the beak along the length of a leaf, presumably to determine if the leaf will be suitable as nesting material. The bird then pulls the leaf off and takes it to its nest.
Since weaver birds weave nests, the leaves they choose have to meet certain criteria. The leaf has to be supple enough that it can be woven but strong enough that it doesn’t easily break.
Wiping Beaks On The Fence
Birds that wipe or rub their beaks along fences may be doing so to clean the beaks.
Some species of shrikes, like the Southern Fiscal, impale prey on wire fences, so it is possible that, at times, such birds may wipe their beak on the fence unintentionally while trying to impale their food or eat it. They likely also use the wire intentionally to wipe off the remains of their prey from their beak.
Wiping Beaks On Each Other (Together)
Birds engage in courtship behavior, which can include a range of behaviors that function to reinforce and strengthen the pair bond. Beak wiping on a mate is only one part of courtship behaviors, with birds also singing, dancing, and having specific courtship flights.
Besides beak wiping, birds may preen each other as part of their pair bonding routine. Some species, such as pigeons, even engage in courtship feeding.
Wiping The Beak And Anting
Some birds engage in anting. This is when the bird grabs an ant and then uses its beak to wipe the ant on its feathers.
When a bird rubs an ant along its body, the ant will release a chemical known as formic acid. This formic acid may help protect the bird from harmful parasites like mites or lice. If you see a bird wiping its beak along its feathers while standing on an ant hill, then it may well be anting.
Beak wiping is a common behavior in birds. This behavior can serve more than one purpose. Birds may wipe their beaks to clean them of food and dirt. Birds may wipe their beaks on hard objects to help trim and shape them to stop overgrowth, and it may also serve as a courtship or signaling cue to other birds.