Hand to Mouth

Page 4 of 4

The similarity between the bills on these two preserved specimens almost disaffirms Lewis's comparison-by-recollection. He may have been right, for slight differences in color, shape and size can occur even within a species, but these two photos serve to reinforce the consensus now that the two kinds of North American meadowlark are visually almost indistinguishable:

Western Meadowlark Beak

Western Meadowlark beak

Kevin J. McGowan, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

" . . . the beak is somewhat longer and more curved . . . "

Eastern Meadowlark Beak

Eastern Meadowlark—Beak

Kevin J. McGowan, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

Some ornithologists prefer to reserve the word beak to denote the mandibles—jaws—of birds of prey, such as hawks and eagles, and use for the rest the word bill. Technically, it is termed the rostrum.1

A bird's bill is Nature's most successful all-purpose tool. It serves as well for personal grooming as for expressing something like affection toward a mate. It works as a thumb-and-forefinger to pick up, carry and arrange building materials for nests. It's a three-in-one combination of knife, fork and spoon, and doubles as both lips and teeth. It's an effective weapon. For some birds it's also a hammer and a chisel. Across the whole spectrum of avian anatomies, it comes in an amazing variety of sizes, shapes and colors to correspond with individual lifestyles. Some birds even wear bills of different colors to suit the season. What's more, it's economical! It continuously renews itself to replace a work-worn tip. Bills hold tongues too, but not many taste buds —perhaps fewer than fifty, compared with a human's 9,000.


1. John K. Terres, ed., The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds (New York: Wings Books, 1991), "beak," "bill." In ancient times the Latin word rostrum was the name for the pointed prow of a warship, and in a Roman forum the speaker's platform was typically built to represent the prow of a captured enemy galley. And so, today a rostrum can be either a speaker's platform—usually without a pointed prow—or a bird's bill, with.