Bird Tongue Facts We Bet You Don’t Already Know!

Have you ever wondered what a bird tongue is like? Is it long enough for them to lick their beaks clean? What color is it? How different is a bird’s tongue from a human’s?

If you want to know the answers to these questions then you’re in the right place. 

Read on to find out everything you need to know about how the tongue of our favorite feathered friends works. 

Table of Contents

Bird Tongue Morphology

A bird uses its tongue to help them with food intake, swallowing and communicating with other birds. 

A birds tongue is part of the “lingual apparatus” and is located in the floor of the lower beak.

The tongues’ extrinsic muscles anchor the tongue and allow it to change position. 

Bird tongues have tactile receptors that help it to identify and position food before swallowing.  

Bones of the Tongue

The tongue is made up of bones and cartilage which control its movements, this is known as the hyoid apparatus. 

The hyoid is important because not only does it help define the shape of the tongue but it also controls its movement and ability to extend and retract. 

The paraglossum is embedded in the tongue and can either be an unpaired bone or two bones fused together. 

This bone determines what the tongue type is like, If it’s well developed then the tongue will be thick and fleshy. If it’s mostly comprised of cartilage then the tongue will be small.


This is the layer of cells that covers the birds tongue. Its thickness depends on the species of bird. 

In some birds, such as ducks and geese the epithelium hardens near the tip or the side of the tongue to create the lingual nail. This hardening effect is known as keratinization. 

Lingual Nail

This is found in the tip of the tongue of ducks, geese, swans, parrots, the White-Tailed Eagle, and chickens. 

The keratinized epithelium is still flexible enough so that it can be stretched and is used by these birds as a spoon to help them lift grain. 


The papillae are another keratinized process of the epithelium and are the hair or barb like structures found on the tongue. 

These help birds keep food on their tongue. The papillae are usually rear-facing to help air swallowing. 

The papillaes shape and size varies depending on the species of bird.

Geese, quail and birds of prey are amongst some of the types of birds that have a papillae crest. This is the V-shaped row of papillae that point backwards and aid food movement and help prevent regurgitation. 

Salivary Glands

These are usually found in the root and body of the tongue and they produce saliva and mucus. 

These are important because they help act as a barrier to germs and bacteria. They also help moisten the food before it’s swallowed. 

Taste Buds

A birds taste buds are found in the roof, floor, and base of the tongue. 

Birds have significantly fewer taste buds than humans.

We have over 10,000 while a parrot has around 400 and a chicken has just 24. 

Even though birds don’t have all that many taste buds they are able to differentiate between a variety of tastes, such as sweet, salt, brine, bitter, fats and sugars. 

Color and Markings

The color and markings on a birds tongue can vary depending on the species. Some have spots, a band or both. These can also change as baby birds develop in to adults. 

The baby Locust Finch’s tongue has red spots on it while the tongue of the baby Grey-Headed Silverbills have two black spots and a band near the tip. 

Information on the color of adult bird tongues is limited, although some are said to be pink, black, blue and some have spots and bands. 

Growth of the Tongue

The bigger the tongue then the faster the growth tends to be. 

For instance, the tongue of a hummingbird grows at an alarmingly fast rate, white birds that have a shorter adult tongue, such as owls have tongues that grow at a much slower rate. 

Bird Tongue Types

Birds don’t all have the same type of tongue, instead there is a broad variation of tongue shape, size and functions depending on their species. 

Muscular Tongue

This tongue type is found in parrots and is useful for holding onto seeds and nuts. The dexterity also plays a part in helping parrots to mimic sounds. 

Grooved Tongue

You’ll find this tongue type in vultures, as the grooved shape comes in handy to suck out the bone marrow from broken bones.

The law of vultures means that they only have a limited time to grab as much food as they can from the carcass. 

The grooved shape also helps vulture to push the food into their throats as quickly as possible. 

Piston Like Tongue

Birds, flamingos and pigeons drink differently to other types of birds, as they don’t tilt their heads back when they’re drinking.

They do this because their tongue acts like a piston and it pushes water into their mouths. 

Sticky Tongues

Sticky barbed tongues can be found in woodpeckers and other types of birds that grab their prey out of holes and crevices. 

When they stick their tongue in the hole it acts like glue and insects stick to it. 

Woodpeckers also use their tongue as a cushion to protect themselves when they use their beaks to peck beneath the tree surface. 

Nectarine Tongues

These are found in birds who feed on nectar but they vary depending on the species. 

The Oriental White Eye has a thin tongue with a brush-like tip so it can be dabbed on the flowers to absorb the nectar. 

Sunbirds have long, tubular tongues, with 2-3 branches at the tip to help them suck up the nectar. 


This is the process of maintaining core body temperature. 

Lots of birds use their tongues to help regulate their temperature which is why it’s common to see a bird perched with their mouth open. 

They expose their tongues to the cool air to help them keep a healthy internal body temperature. 

Relationship of Diet to a Birds Tongue

A birds tongue shape and size is so variable between species, as each one has their own unique way of eating. 

If a bird eats grubs and insects then they will either have sticky tongues to trap them or have small barbs or hooks on the tongue tip to impale them on. 

Fish eating birds such as pelicans have smaller tongues so that they don’t get in the way when they’re guzzling down fish whole. 

The simple, triangular tongues found in birds of prey fit perfectly within their beaks. 

Bird Tongue Sizes 

Birds don’t have teeth so their tongue serves as an extra important function for them. Then again, they don’t need teeth when their tongues are so effective. 

The size of a birds tongue is dependant on the size of the bird, their beak and how they tend to eat. 

Long Bird Tongue

The bird with the longest tongue is the Northern Flicker, which is a species of woodpecker that is commonly found in North America. 

This medium-sized bird boasts an impressive 5-inch long tongue. They use their tongue to lick insects out of tree holes and cavities. 

Some nectar drinking birds such as the hummingbird have long tubular tongues so that they can easily suck up nectar. 

Short Bird Tongue

Birds with short tongues are usually species that have a tendency to swallow their food whole, such as pelicans and cormorants. 

Emus also have small tongues which allow them to easily swallow small stones which help grind up their diet of seeds, plants, and insects. 

Bird Tongue

Birds are some of the most fascinating creatures on earth. They come in different shapes, sizes, and colors, and each species has unique adaptations that allow them to thrive in their respective habitats. 

One aspect of avian anatomy that is often overlooked is their tongues. 

Do Birds Have Tongues?

The short answer is yes, birds have tongues, but their anatomy differs significantly from mammals. 

In mammals, the tongue is a muscular organ that is attached to the floor of the mouth. It is used for various functions, such as taste, speech, and swallowing. 

In birds, however, the tongue is a small, thin, and bony structure that is often hidden inside the beak.

7 Different Types of Tongues That Birds Have

1. Muscular Tongues

Some birds, such as woodpeckers, have muscular tongues that are used to extract insects from tree bark. 

Woodpeckers have long, barbed tongues that can be extended up to three times the length of their beaks.

2. Grooved Tongues

Hummingbirds have grooved tongues that are used to collect nectar from flowers. Their tongues are so long that they can reach deep into the flower to extract the nectar.

3. Piston Tongues

Some birds, such as the common swift, have piston-like tongues that are used to catch insects in mid-flight. 

The tongue is quickly extended and retracted, trapping the insect in a sticky saliva.

4. Sticky Tongues

Chameleons are known for their long, sticky tongues, but did you know that some birds also have sticky tongues? 

The long-tailed tits have tongues that are covered in a sticky secretion that helps them collect spiders and insects from small crevices.

5. Nectar Tongues

Similar to hummingbirds, sunbirds have long, brush-like tongues that are used to collect nectar from flowers. 

Their tongues are coated with tiny hairs that help them absorb the nectar.

6. Brush Tongues

Some birds, such as parrots, have brush-like tongues that are used to remove seeds from fruits. 

The tongue is covered in tiny papillae that help to grind and crush the seeds.

7. Wavy Tongues

Some waterbirds, such as flamingos and pelicans, have wavy tongues that are used to filter out water and mud while they hunt for food. 

The tongue acts like a sieve, allowing the bird to swallow its prey while expelling excess water and mud.

General Physiology Of A Bird’s Tongue

A bird’s tongue is a complex organ that varies in shape, size, and texture across different species. 

However, all bird tongues share some common features that make them well-suited to their specific feeding habits.


Bird tongues lack bones, which allows for greater flexibility and maneuverability when capturing prey. 

Instead, they have a hyoid apparatus, a complex system of bones, cartilage, and muscles that supports the tongue and throat.


The surface of a bird’s tongue is covered by epithelium, a layer of cells that protects the tongue from abrasion and injury. 

The epithelium can also have specialized structures, such as tiny hooks or serrated edges, that aid in capturing and holding prey.

Lingual Nail

Many birds have a small projection at the tip of their tongue called a lingual nail. This structure helps them grasp and manipulate prey, particularly insects.


Bird tongues have small bumps called papillae that are covered in sensory cells. These cells help birds taste and manipulate their food, detecting flavors and textures that can guide feeding behavior.

Salivary Glands

Birds also have salivary glands located at the base of their tongue that produce saliva. Saliva helps to lubricate the food and break it down for easier digestion.

Different Markings And Colors

In addition to their functional adaptations, bird tongues can also be visually striking. Some bird tongues have unique markings and colors that may serve to attract mates or deter predators.

Different Tongues For Different Purposes

Now that we’ve covered the general physiology of a bird’s tongue, let’s take a closer look at some of the different types of tongues found in different bird species.

Hummingbird Tongues

Hummingbirds have long, slender tongues that are specially adapted for feeding on nectar from flowers. 

Their tongues can extend up to twice the length of their beaks, allowing them to reach deep into flowers and lap up nectar with their brush-like tips.

Woodpecker Tongues

Woodpeckers have long, sticky tongues that they use to probe for insects hiding inside trees. Their tongues are also barbed, allowing them to capture prey with ease.

To protect their brains from the impact of hammering, woodpeckers have evolved a specialized hyoid apparatus that wraps around their skulls and acts as a shock absorber.

Birds Of Prey Tongues

Birds of prey, such as eagles and hawks, have sharp, curved beaks and powerful talons for catching and killing prey. 

However, their tongues are relatively simple, with a smooth surface and few papillae. 

This is because birds of prey tear their prey into pieces before swallowing, rather than manipulating it with their tongue.

Penguin Tongues

Penguins have short, stout tongues that are covered in backward-facing spines. 

These spines help to hold onto slippery fish and squid, making it easier for penguins to swallow their prey whole.

Duck Tongues

Ducks have broad, flat tongues that are perfect for straining food from the water. 

Their tongues are lined with comb-like structures called lamellae that filter out small aquatic creatures, such as plankton and insects.

Which Birds Don’t Have Tongues?

Believe it or not, there are some birds that don’t have tongues at all! One example is the common swift, which has a small opening in the back of its mouth that leads directly to its esophagus. 

This allows it to catch insects in mid-air without the need for a tongue. Similarly, some species of owl have reduced or absent tongues, as they swallow their prey whole.

What Do Birds Use Their Tongues For?

While some birds don’t have tongues, most use them for a variety of functions. These include manipulating food, tasting, and in some cases, even singing. 

Additionally, some species of bird, such as woodpeckers and parrots, use their tongues to help them climb or cling to surfaces.

What Are Some Features of Birds’ Tongues?

Birds’ tongues come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with unique features that help them in their specific feeding habits. 

For example, hummingbirds have long, tube-like tongues that are perfectly adapted for sipping nectar from flowers. 

In contrast, woodpeckers have long, barbed tongues that they use to extract insects from crevices in trees. 

Many bird species also have papillae on their tongues that help them taste their food and detect potential dangers.

Which Birds Have the Longest Tongues?

The birds with the longest tongues are typically those that feed on insects or nectar. 

For example, the tube-lipped nectar bat has a tongue that is longer than its body, which it uses to collect nectar from flowers. 

Similarly, the sword-billed hummingbird has a tongue that is longer than its beak, allowing it to reach deep into flowers for nectar.

Do Birds Have Taste Buds?

Yes, birds do have taste buds, although the number and location of these buds can vary between species. 

Some birds, such as chickens, have taste buds on their tongues, while others, such as pigeons, have them in their upper beaks.

Do Birds Use Their Tongues to Sing?

While birds use their syrinx (voice box) to produce sound, some species do use their tongues to modify their songs. 

For example, male mockingbirds can move their tongue to create different notes and pitches in their complex songs.

Do Birds Lick Their Beaks?

Birds do indeed lick their beaks, but not for the same reasons that mammals do. Instead of using their tongues to clean themselves, birds use their beaks to preen their feathers and remove dirt or debris. 

Licking their beaks can also help them to moisten their feathers and regulate their body temperature.

The Tongues of Flightless Birds

While most flightless birds, such as ostriches and emus, have tongues that are similar to those of their flying counterparts, the kiwi bird has a unique tongue structure. 

Instead of having a muscular tongue, the kiwi’s tongue is more like a long, flexible straw, which it uses to probe for insects in the ground. 

This adaptation allows the kiwi to catch prey without having to use its beak.

This 120-Million-Year-Old Bird Could Stick Out Its Tongue

In 2016, scientists discovered a 120-million-year-old bird fossil with a preserved tongue. 

The bird, named Falcatakely forsterae, had a tongue that was attached to the hyoid bone, which is similar to the tongue structure found in modern birds. 

This discovery provides valuable insight into the evolution of birds’ tongues and how they have adapted to different feeding habits over millions of years.

FAQs About Bird Tongue

What is a bird tongue called?

The scientific name for the bird tongue is “lingual apparatus.” It is a complex structure that includes bones, muscles, and nerves.

What is the structure of bird tongue?

Bird tongues come in various shapes and sizes, depending on the species. However, most bird tongues are thin and pointed, with a cartilaginous or bony base. 

The surface of the tongue is covered in a layer of keratinized epithelial tissue, which gives it a rough texture.

What does the tongue do in birds?

Birds use their tongues for a variety of purposes. Some species, like woodpeckers and hummingbirds, have long, extensible tongues that they use to probe for insects or nectar deep inside flowers or tree bark. 

Other species, like parrots and songbirds, use their tongues to manipulate food and form complex vocalizations.

Which bird has the longest tongue?

The Guinness World Record for the bird with the longest tongue goes to the male Anna’s hummingbird, which has a tongue that is twice the length of its beak. 

This allows the bird to feed on nectar from deep within flowers that are inaccessible to other species.

Which animal has the largest tongue?

The blue whale, the largest animal on Earth, also has the largest tongue. The tongue of a blue whale can weigh as much as an elephant and is large enough to hold up to 90 people. 

However, unlike birds, whales do not use their tongues for feeding or vocalization but instead to help them filter-feed on plankton.

Final Thoughts About Bird Tongue

Bird tongues are truly remarkable structures that serve many different purposes, from feeding to vocalization. 

Despite their diversity, all bird tongues share a common function in facilitating the bird’s ability to thrive in its environment. 

By exploring the various types of bird tongues and their functions, we can gain a deeper appreciation for these amazing creatures.

FAQs: The Short Answers

Do you still have loads of questions about bird tongues? Don’t worry, as below I give the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions. 

What’s a Penguins Tongue Like?

When we think of penguins we think of gentle, waddling creatures that mate for life and like snowier climates.
As gentle as they may appear, inside of their mouths is a very different story. 
Because penguins swallow their food alive they need a way to hold onto it, which is where their sharp serrations come in handy.
They have them on their tongues and in their beaks and cheeks.
Penguins have spiny tongues which keep their food moving along. 

Do Birds Tongues have bones in them? 

Yes, they have 5 bones that strengthen and support it. These bones are known as the “hyoid apparatus.” 
The bones in their tongues are: paraglossals, basihyale, urohyale, ceratobranchiate, and epibranchiate. 

Can Birds Lick Their Beaks With Their Tongues?

Most birds don’t lick their beaks but some of them do clean the inside of their mouths with their tongue
Some parrots and lovebirds may also lick their owners fingers in an attempt to get their attention. 
Birds such as parrots don’t like to be messy, so they clean their beaks against branches and surfaces to rub away any leftover food. 

How Different are Bird Tongues to Humans?

Humans use their tongues for chewing, swallowing, and speech. Our tongue is the only muscle in the body to be connected by just one bone.
Bird tongues are generally far tougher and harder than human tongues. They also have 5 bones in their tongue.
While we have 10,000 taste buds birds don’t usually have more than a couple of hundred, with pigeons having just 40.  
Parrots use intrinsic tongue movements to create vowel-like sounds as we do. Parrots manipulate their tongues to mimic the sounds we make. 

Which Animal Has the Most Taste Buds?

Catfish can have up to a whopping 175,000 taste buds. They have taste buds all over their body, with the most being in the four whiskers they have around their mouths. 

Do Any Bird Species Have Teeth?

Birds don’t have a need for teeth like we do, as their tongues are just so good. 
However, some birds such as the Greylag Goose do have tooth-like serrations along the edges of their beaks. These are called tomia and help them to grip food. 
Other birds that have serration on their beaks are falcons, ducks and geese. 

Do All Animals Have a Tongue?

Most amphibians, mammals, reptiles, and birds have tongues, as they use them frequently while eating and talking.
Some crustaceans and echinoderms such don’t have a tongue. Sea Stars suck in their food through their stomach. 

Does a Crow Have a Tongue?

A crow, like all birds, does indeed have a tongue. It’s believed that if you split a crows tongue then this would enable them to talk…ouch!

Which Bird Has no Tongue?

All birds have a tongue of some sort, although these vary dramatically in shape and size. 

An Overview of Bird Tongues

From long, short, sticky, sharp, and tubular, bird’s tongues really do come in a variety of shapes and sizes. 

Birds are unique creatures and they have extraordinary tongues that have adapted to work to their specific diet and needs. 

I hope that you now know everything you need to know about bird tongues, so the next time someone asks you how many taste buds a pigeon has you can jump straight in with the answer. 

Bye for now and thanks for reading. 

Julian Goldie - Owner of

Julian Goldie

I'm a bird enthusiast and creator of Chipper Birds, a blog sharing my experience caring for birds. I've traveled the world bird watching and I'm committed to helping others with bird care. Contact me at [email protected] for assistance.