It’s an age-old question. Is that bird’s facey-lip bit a beak or a bill? When should you call a bill a beak, and a beak a bill? What even is a “facey-lip bit”? Why should you even care? All these questions and more will be answered here, in this blog, by me and some mates I asked at lunch.
Firstly, what’s a “facey-lip bit”? Well we’ve established that it’s either a beak or a bill, but what’s it made of? Beaks and bills are made up of two bony protrusions, covered in a layer of the same stuff that’s in our fingernails: keratin. The bony protrusions form an upper and lower mandible, and the keratinised final layer, or epidermis, forms around those mandibles into something known as the rhamphotheca. There are loads of different shapes, sizes and colours, all of which help that particular species of bird carve, scythe, skim and peck out a niche for itself.
What’s the difference between a beak and a bill, then? I’m going to set out a couple of ways I feel we could work out how to define the difference, and then we’ll hear from some bird-loving chums of mine. First up, I propose that we could define the difference by how those two words sound and how that marries up visually with the bird and its habitat in a kind of onomatopoeic way. Allow me to elaborate on what I’ve termed the Plumb method.
The word “beak” sounds pointy and stabby. It also sounds a bit pinchy. Birds that eat insects, like a blue tit, pinch and nip insects from leaves and tree bark. Rooks stab into the ground really hard for worms. Birds of prey and scavenging birds pluck and rip their prey. I’d say all these birds have beaks. I’d also extend this to birds that pick up grain or seeds from the floor like a woodpigeon or partridge, or from between the gaps in pinecones like a crossbill. “But Jack, it’s got ‘bill’ in its name!” Yes I can see that. Moving on…
Good examples - these are my benchmark birds (Photos: Flickr creative commons, Colin Frankland and nick goodrum)
The word “bill” sounds a bit like something floppy or wet, or as though the bird doesn’t annunciate. It also sounds like it doesn’t end in a sharp bit. Birds that dabble in the water, like a lovely shoveler duck, definitely have a bill. I imagine them gargling away with their big floppy bill. Clearly something like a spoonbill falls into the bill category too, but there are admittedly some trickier facey-lip bits to define using this extremely scientific method.
There are plenty of birds that are harder to define. Gulls, toucans and herons immediately spring to mind. Gulls live mostly on water and in chip shops. To best grab a chip from a child’s hand you need the dexterity of a beak. To eat what you’re supposed to eat at sea you need a bill. Toucans pinch fruit from trees and off the ground, but fruit is often wet and sloppy. Toucans also tend to live in rainforests, which are wet. Herons have possibly the most stabby facey-lip bit, but spend most of the time using it knee-deep in water. Let’s have a look at some other definitions.
Somewhere in the middle? (Photos: Flickr creative commons, Kevin Schofield and Phil McIver and Allan Hack)
The second way to define the difference between a beak and bill is with the Oxford English Living Dictionary. Clearly this method is significantly less interesting, but perhaps has slightly more merit than me just coming up with something.
The OELD defines a beak as, “A bird's horny projecting jaws; a bill.” And defines a bill as, “The beak of a bird, especially when it is slender, flattened, or weak, or belongs to a web-footed bird or a bird of the pigeon family.”
According to the Oxford English Living Dictionary, a bill is a beak and a beak is a bill. Thanks Oxford.
Seeing as we’re not getting any further forward, it’s time to bring in the “experts”. Please welcome, James, Emma and Catie, all superb humans who like birds, and people I regularly have lunch with.
I sent them each a list of birds that I feel have facey-lip bits that are difficult to categorise into either “beak” or “bill”. You can find the list a bit later on and have a go yourself, but first let’s hear what they had to say and pick out some birds that they disagreed or agreed on.
Emma said, “I have no idea what the difference is but I feel like it has something to do with their nostrils.”
Interesting thought. It’s possibly something worth investigating in a follow-up blog. Perhaps the sound produced from their nostrils would correlate perfectly with the Plumb method, combining into the perfect defining principle? Emma went for “bill” for most of the birds, and disagreed with Catie on almost everything.
James said, “Personally, I’d say anything sticking out of a bird’s face is a beak, with a subcategory of beaks being ‘bills’. I’d use the word bill for ducks and possibly anything else with a spatulate bill (such as a spoonbill) but I imagine my usage is incredibly personal!
I’ve heard bill used for waders a lot more since I moved south, but I generally think of waders with long beaks as having ‘nebs’. If I were being overly curious as a child my Mum would tell me to ‘keep my neb out’.
I imagine, though, that archaically there wasn’t much difference between the two words. A hornbill has bill in the name, but I’d put that firmly in the beak category.”
That’s some interesting insight and a lovely bit of northern slang. Hornbill is very controversial. Going back to the Plumb method, I would place it in the beak category. Hornbills don’t spend much time in water, it looks like their facey-lip bit is pretty hard, and I reckon they could happily poke your eye out with it. James went for beak for everything, but suggested that bill or ‘neb’ could be used for certain birds as an alternative.
Catie said, “I realised I tend to think of birds in water as having bills and land birds as having beaks. A mallard comes to mind first when I hear bill, aside from my twin brother Bill.”
I’d tend to think similarly to Catie, minus the twin brother bit. Water birds and the sound of water fits well with the word “bill”. I’d say a puffin had a beak though, and I reckon those sand eels would agree! Catie and I largely agreed on the list.
Perhaps there's a scale, with "beak" on one end and "bill" on the other. A blue tit would be a solid "beak" – let's say a 1 – and a shoveler would be a huge "bill" – a 10 on the scale. Gulls and corvids might end up at 5, being super adaptable.
Finally, it’s over to you. Here’s the list of birds and groups of birds that I sent to my lunchtime pals. I feel these could cause some beaky-billed confusion.
Let us know what you think – is it a beak, or a bill? What other bird facey-lip bits are hard to define?
Islay is a place with a lot to offer, but two things really put it on the map: wild geese and whisky. I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy both these things on this beautiful Hebridean island (with geese considerably outnumbering drams of whisky I’d like to add...). My visits have been in "goose season" of late winter and early spring though, so it was a real treat to spend a couple of days there in late July.
Islay's many beaches and bays are wonderful places to search for sea life - and otters (Mark Ward)
Eagles rockOn my first day there, I was given a tour of The Oa RSPB reserve, by Site Manager David Wood. The skies were blue and the sun was shining as we were given a tour of the trails and then the wider area, when I really discovered just how big this fabulous reserve is. It's one of the RSPB's biggest reserves - one of many things I learned.
As David was filling us in on the reserve, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the gorgeous coastal backdrop. As time went on, a big “lump” on a rock some 100 metres away was niggling me. After three or four glances and with the lump seemingly becoming more and more bird-like, I had to speak up: “Is that one of your golden eagles?” Fortunately, to save my blushes, and for rudely interrupting, it was!
The Oa RSPB reserve - Not too shabby on the scenic front (and a golden eagle was on one of those rocks when I took this - Mark Ward)
We were a little late for the reserve’s star butterfly, the marsh fritillary, but it was great to see a few dark-green fritillaries dashing around a sheltered, grassy cliff face and then David pulled out a nice party trick by saying this is a good spot for graylings too. Within seconds of peering over the top, we’d seen 4-5 of these sun-seeking lovelies. Graylings are masters of camouflage and when they land and close their wings, they disappear completely.
Grayling - fairly easy to see in this shot, but once it closes those wings, it literally disappears! (Mark Ward)
In the redThe charismatic chough is one of Islay’s star species and it didn’t take long for the unmistakable wheezy “chow” call to be heard, drifting across the cliff top. There were two family parties on show and they regularly passed by, showing their curved red beaks and “fingered” wingtips.
Everyone's favourite crow, the chough - an Islay specialty (Andy Hay- rspb-images.com)
David showed us the contents of the reserve moth trap from the previous night’s trapping and it contained at least a dozen stunning garden tigers. These are getting much harder to find in the south, so to see so many was a real treat. There were also three moths I had never seen before, so I was very happy! We then checked out a beautiful meadow where frog orchids and autumn gentian grew among a profusion of other species.
We had an afternoon date with the team at Loch Gruinart, but before we left the car park, I picked up an odd looking “gull” floating over the moorland - a male hen harrier. On the drive to RSPB Loch Gruinart, another three males showed up making it the commonest raptor I saw during my two days on Islay. Now that really is something to celebrate...
We’re all about the wildflowers this week on the Nature’s Home team, as you’ll see from Mark’s blog on rare machair meadows, and Emma’s on sunflowers, lavender and other wildlife-friendly garden favourites.
Last week, I was down on the Dorset coast again, wandering amid the sunlit heath at RSPB Arne with my family, and was enjoying the heather being in full bloom. The entire landscape was painted deep purple – a glorious technicolour version of its former self, and buzzing with butterflies, bees, grasshoppers and jewelled dragonflies.
My daughter, enjoying the heather blooms last week at RSPB Arne.
Centuries ago, ordinary people slept on beds stuffed with heather, and yet also used it in construction projects to firm up soft ground. As a child I lay on living cushions of the stuff, picking bilberries from Cumbrian fellsides. It’s both soft and strong. And right now, it’s in full vigour.
I could see at a glance that there were different purples going on. A variety of wild heathers bloom across the UK, with “ling” (Calluna vulgaris) and bell heather (Erica cinerea) the most common. It needs open, sunny ground and acidic soil to grow, but seems pretty tolerant of moisture variance, growing on mountain bogs and sandy coastal soils alike.
A heather-clad walk to Arne's sandy cove – a must if you're in Dorset this season.
Despite being barely knee-high, heather provides a vast, self-sustaining jungle to the tiny creatures it supports. It’s one of our best plants for wildlife, and the perfect habitat for most of our reptiles, including rare smooth snakes and sand lizards - plus a vast, colourful cast of invertebrates. Here are just five of my faves, some of which feature in the heathland feature you’ll find in the current issue of RSPB Nature’s Home:
5 WILDLIFE SPECIES THAT LOVE HEATHER
1. Green tiger beetle (Cicindela campestris)
This jewelled, metallic bug shares the heather’s love of sunny, open spaces, where it sprints around catching the ants, spiders and caterpillars that live among the shrubs, despatching them with fearsome mandibles. Even the larvae are formidable, often ambushing and devouring adult beetles!
2. Silver-studded blue butterfly (Plebejus argus)
Photo: Gail Hampshire
Named for the light-blue reflective scales on its underside, they rather ingeniously hire local ants as babysitters. The caterpillars emit pheromones which prompt the ants to carry them into their colonies and keep them safe and dry until they emerge as butterflies. Nature never ceases to amaze me!
3. Pink crab spider (Thomisus onustus)
Adjusts its own colour to match a particular heather so it can hide, motionless, on a blossom. Then - boom! - passing prey won’t know what hits them.
4. Heather bee (Colletes succintus)
Fuzzy orange body, banded black abdomen, this mining bee LOVES heather pollen and can be found in flight this season, browsing those ling blooms.
5. Smooth snake (Coronella austriaca)
Photo: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
I love snakes, and this one is the UK’s rarest, restricted to Dorset, Hampshire, W Sussex and Surrey - though they’re more widespread across the Channel. They use the heather to stay hidden while basking, winding their sinuous bodies around the shrub’s stems to blend in. They resemble a slim adder, but are not venomous, squeezing their prey (small mammals and reptiles) and swallowing the poor things alive. I’ve never seen one, but I’d love to!
So head out and enjoy nature’s purple carpets while they’re at their most glorious… We’d love to hear about where you go and what you see. Log in to comment below, or email the magazine.