The bird with no feet sleeps on the wind*

(This post is the second of four about the numbers of legs and toes in the animal kingdom. If you missed the first one, on mammals, you might want to look at it because it explains why I have chosen this theme. It was posted on June 29th: )

In flight, you can often imagine that a soaring bird has no feet, and never touches down to earth. Witness this Namibian Augur Buzzard.


But all birds have feet, and most of those feet have four toes, three pointing forward and one at the back. They work extremely well for perching on twigs, like this cardinal:


The same toe-count can be adapted to spread the birds weight when walking on tricky surfaces like lily-pads or mud. This Grey-necked Wood Rail in the Pantanal has caught a fish, but a moment later its catch was stolen by a large tegu lizard:


The toes can be webbed for paddling, like the three front toes of this swan. Note the small fourth back toe.


Or toes can be lobed, like this male coot’s, upended by his rival in a vicious kick-boxing match:


These curious lobes create brilliantly multipurpose feet. In the water, the lobes act like webbing to help with swimming. But on land, when the coot lifts its feet the lobes fold back, making walking through mud easier.

A few birds, including woodpeckers, owls, and parrots, arrange their four toes with two forwards and two backwards. This Hyacinth Macaw is showing the two front toes of each foot:


Here is a close up of the foot of a barred owl, sadly found dead by the roadside in Maine:


The ostrich is the only bird with just two toes on each foot:

Male ostrich and chicks; female was also nearby.

Just like zebras and horses, with their single toe, the adult ostrich can kick powerfully enough to kill a man or a lion, and just like in humans the innermost toe is the bigger one! (The front foot is the left foot in the rather confusing photo below.)

Somali Ostrich

There may be money to be made in offering pedicures to ostriches…

I’ll keep following this digital count, with reptiles and amphibians next.

* My title is an oblique reference to this passage from Tennessee Williams:

2 thoughts on “The bird with no feet sleeps on the wind*”

  1. The common swift’s name – Apus Apus – actually means ‘no feet’. Apparently Aristotle and Pliny called it απους because when flying, their feet can’t be seen and they do everything except raise their young on the wing. I’m very keen on swifts at the moment because I’ve erected two ‘starter homes’ at the top of the back wall of my house. We have a Bath swift group with a kind benefactor who provides these very desirable residences for free to anyone who can put them in a good position. There are 10 or 12 who scream around our square and have long-term nests in the eaves of the house across the road. I’m hoping the young ones will be scouting around for likely nest sites for next year and have even held my phone out of my bedroom window playing swifts screaming – this is supposed to encourage them!


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