Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Form and Use of Beaks

Teacher's Story

dropcap image INCE the bird uses its arms and hands for flying, it has been obliged to develop other organs to take their place, and of their work the beak does its full share. It is well to emphasize this point by letting the children at recess play the game of trying to eat an apple or to put up their books and pencils with their arms tied behind them; such an experiment will show how naturally the teeth and feet come to the aid when the hands are useless.

The hen feeds upon seeds and insects which she finds on or in the ground; her beak is horny and sharp and acts not only as a pair of nippers, but also as a pick as she strikes it into the soil to get the seed or insect, having already made bare the place by scratching away the grass or surface of the soil with her strong, stubby toes. The hen does not have any teeth, nor does she need any, for her sharp beak enables her to seize her food; and she does not need to chew it, since her gizzard does this for her after the food is swallowed.

The duck's bill is broad, flat, and much softer than the hen's beak. The duck feeds upon water insects and plants; it attains these by thrusting its head down into the water, seizing the food and holding it fast while the water is strained out through the sieve at the edges of the beak; for this use, a wide, flat beak is necessary. It would be quite as impossible for a duck to pick up hard seeds with its broad, soft bill as it would for the hen to get the duck's food out of the water with her narrow, horny bill.

Both the duck and hen use their bills for cleaning and oiling their feathers and for fighting also; the hen strikes a sharp blow with her beak making a wound like a dagger, while the duck seizes the enemy and simply pinches hard. Both fowls also use their beaks for turning over the eggs when incubating, and also as an aid to the feet when they make nests for themselves.

The nostrils are very noticeable and are situated in the beak near the base. However, we do not believe that birds have a keen sense of smell since their nostrils are not surrounded by a damp, sensitive, soft surface as are the nostrils of the deer and dog, this arrangement aiding these animals to detect odor in a marvelous manner.

Lesson V

The Beak of a Bird

Leading thought—Each kind of bird has a beak especially adapted for getting its food. The beak and feet of a bird are its chief weapons and implements.

Methods—Study first the beak of the hen or chick and then that of the duckling or gosling.


1. What kind of food does the hen eat and where and how does she find it in the field or garden? How is her beak adapted to get this food? If her beak were soft like that of a duck could she peck so hard for seeds and worms? Has the hen any teeth? Does she need any?

2. Compare the bill of the hen with that of the duck. What are the differences in shape? Which is the harder?

3. Note the saw teeth along the edge of the duck's bill. Are these for chewing? Do they act as a strainer? Why does the duck need to strain its food?

4. Could a duck pick up a hen's food from the earth or the hen strain out a duck's food from the water? For what other things than getting food do these fowls use their bills?

5. Can you see the nostrils in the bill of a hen? Do they show plainer in the duck? Do you think the hen can smell as keenly as the duck?

Supplementary reading—The Bird Book, p. 99; The First Book of Birds, pp. 95-7; Mother Nature's Children, Chapter VIII.

"It is said that nature-study teaching should be accurate, a statement that every good teacher will admit without debate; but accuracy is often interpreted to mean completeness, and then the statement cannot pass unchallenged. To study 'the dandelion,' 'the robin,' with emphasis on the article 'the,' working out the complete structure, may be good laboratory work in botany or zoology for advanced pupils, but it is not an elementary educational process. It contributes nothing more to accuracy than does the natural order of leaving untouched all those phases of the subject that are out of the child's reach; while it may take out the life and spirit of the work, and the spiritual quality may be the very part that is most worth the while. Other work may provide the formal 'drill'; this should supply the quality and vivacity. Teachers often say to me that their children have done excellent work with these complete methods, and they show me the essays and drawings; but this is no proof that the work is commendable. Children can be made to do many things that they ought not to do and that lie beyond them. We all need to go to school to children."

—"The Outlook to Nature," L. H. Bailey.

"Weather and wind and waning moon,

Plain and hilltop under the sky,

Ev'ning, morning and blazing noon,

Brother of all the world am I.

The pine-tree, linden and the maize,

The insect, squirrel and the kine,

All—natively they live their days—

As they live theirs, so I live mine,

I know not where, I know not what:—

Believing none and doubting none

What'er befalls it counteth not,—

Nature and Time and I are one."

—L. H. Bailey.

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