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Bird’s legs and feet: different shapes

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

Text by Nicole Bouglouan  


Aurélien Audevard

Alfredo Colón
Puerto Rico Wildlife

Paul Guillet
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Patrick Ingremeau

Eduardo Andrés Jordan

René Lortie

Eugène Montocchio
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Jean Michel Peers

Callie de Wet

Philippe et Aline Wolfer

Nicole Bouglouan


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We find several other birds’ species living in aquatic areas, such as the Rallidae (rails, coots, moorhens, crakes, swamphens), the Jacanidae (jacanas) and the Podicipedidae (grebes).

Common Coot

All these birds have peculiar non-webbed feet, but the toes are equipped with fleshy lobes or loose membranes, especially in some Rallidae and Podicipedidae.
The Jacanidae show very long, thin toes with peculiar use.       

Wattled Jacana
Giant Wood Rail

The grebes have short legs situated far towards the lower belly. Each toe is equipped with loose fleshy membrane which stretches under the water pressure when the bird is swimming.
However, if they swim very well, they are very clumsy on the ground.

Little Grebe
Great-crested Grebe and detail of the feet
The jacanas have long thin legs and very long, fine toes, three forwards and one backwards. These birds often move by walking on the broad leaves of the aquatic vegetation such as Water Lilies or similar plants.
African Jacana

The long toes distribute the weight regularly among both feet, allowing the bird to move easily in this way in aquatic areas.
The long legs are used when foraging in deeper muddy water.

Northern Jacana

The Rallidae share their time between the water, the mud and the ground. They often forage among the aquatic vegetation of the shores, and their slim body make easier to worm their way into the reeds.  

The moorhens have shorter legs than jacanas, but their feet are very similar, slightly shorter but with thin toes. They occur in aquatic areas with floating vegetation and swim very well.

Common Gallinule and juvenile

The rails have strong, long legs equipped with robust, long toes, but shorter than in Jacanas. They can swim if necessary.

Giant Wood Rail
Black Crake

The crakes have similar behaviour, but they are slightly smaller with shorter legs.

Sora Crake

The swamphens are larger birds with robust legs and feet. They have similar behaviour and forage in aquatic areas, between the reeds and the vegetation, but also in drier areas.

Purple Swamphen

The coots have relatively short legs compared to the other species, but their feet are unique. Each toe is equipped with a series of fleshy lobes, and the underside is flat, allowing the bird to swim, but also to run and walk on the mud, the ice or the ground. They have three toes forwards and one backwards.

Common Coot

They swim effortless. They often fight in the water with other coots, and at this moment, the feet are used as weapon.

Common Coot

All these species have almost similar behaviour and frequent the same type of habitats. The differences between the legs’ size and the feet shapes allow them to feed in different water depths, with floating vegetation or vegetated shores. 


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