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Bird’s legs and feet: different shapes - Introduction

Show me your legs, I will know where you are living!

Birds have very well adapted legs and feet, according to the habitat where they live. From short to very long, through bare or feathered legs, these tools are used in definite soils and under peculiar weather conditions.  

The legs are covered in scales, and the toes are equipped with claws, more or less long or curved, according to the species and its behaviour.

Text by Nicole Bouglouan


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European Goldfinch

Raptors have strong, long, curved claws allowing them to catch and kill the terrestrial or aquatic preys with the talons.     

Burrowing Owl



Terrestrial birds are walking or running over sandy, stony or rocky areas, and need strong, long legs with robust toes.

Southern Cassowary
Black-winged Stilt

Others frequent the same type of habitat, but with vegetation, involving the need of long legs, in order to walk and run through bushes and scrubs.

The birds of the wet areas also need long legs to forage in shallow or deeper waters. 

Some large terrestrial birds such as ostrich and other similar species, have didactylous feet, with only two strong toe forwards.


On the other hand, the aerial birds often perch on branches in trees, and need flexible toes with claws, able to grasp strongly the branch when they rest or sleep. They have the most common anisodactylous feet, with three toes forwards and one toe backwards.   

Tufted Titmouse

The creepers which are arboreal species have zygodactylous toes (two forwards and two backwards) allowing them to climb along the tree trunks. We find this type of feet in Psittaciformes, but also in Picidae and Sittidae families.

Eurasian Treecreeper
Little Woodpecker

In addition, the Sittidae, and mainly the nuthatches, are able to forage upside down, and to move over the tree trunk upwards and downwards.

White-breasted Nuthatch
But we can find several very different shapes, such as webbed feet in aquatic birds (Anseriformes, Laridae and numerous shorebirds), lobed feet in coots or grebes, very long thin toes in jacanas, and semi-palmated feet in several shorebirds’ species.
Common Coot
Mute Swan
Least Grebe
African Jacana

Some aquatic birds such as gannets, cormorants and pelicans, have anisodactylous feet, with the four toes joined by the same membrane.  

Great Cormorant


The Apodiformes have short legs with pamprodactylous feet, with four toes forwards, allowing them to grasp the rim of the nest. These birds belong to the Apodidae Family and are almost exclusively aerial, landing only for nesting.  

Common Swift

The short legs are well adapted to the behaviour of Trochilidae when they feed on nectar inside the flowers.  

Costa's Hummingbird

And some species found in the Galliforme Order, show a spur on the rear legs, just above the other toes.

Common Pheasant

Legs and feet tell us how and where the bird is living, what is its foraging behaviour, if it moves by running, walking or swimming.
As the bill, legs and feet are very important tools allowing each species to feed, to catch preys, to kill them. In fact, they are for the bird that are for us forks, knifes or shoes!

We will learn more about each group in detail though the following pages.

Gang-gang Cockatoo


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