When you think of long tongues, perhaps snakes or aardvarks come to mind. However, certain birds can also share in this trait. From the nectar-sippers to bug-catching pros, these diverse groups of birds evolved some seriously impressive tongues to suit their unique dietary needs. In this article, we’ll explore birds with long tongues and understand how this unique characteristic contributes to their survival.
Birds With Long Tongues
The birds that have the longest tongues are hummingbirds, woodpeckers, sunbirds and honeyeaters. For these species, retrieving nectar from inside a flower or an insect from a small crevice requires the delicate work of a specialized tongue. Let’s get into the details of each group below.
These tiny birds are found throughout North and South America, and have elongated, tube-like tongues with a fork at the end. Size varies by species but generally their tongue can be extended well past the end of their beak. They can flick their tongue into the nectar and back to their mouth rapidly, about 12 times per second.
We usually don’t see the fork at the end of their tongue, as this tends to only open right when the tongue encounters nectar. The ends of the tongue separate in the nectar, and then as the hummingbird brings the tongue back to their mouth the ends come back together, trapping the nectar.
There are several types of hummingbirds found in the United States, and nearly all of them can be attracted to a backyard nectar feeder. Beyond feeders, you can attract hummingbirds to your yard or garden by adding tubed flowers to the landscape.
Let’s look at a few specific examples of common hummingbirds found in the U.S.
The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species commonly found in eastern North America. Both sexes have emerald green backs with a white belly, and males sport the namesake red throat patch. Their migratory patterns take them across the Gulf of Mexico, making a spectacular journey from their breeding grounds in eastern North America to wintering habitats in Central America. Their arrival and departure are carefully watched each year by those who enjoy feeding them.
Anna’s hummingbird is commonly found along the western coast of the United States, from Alaska down to Baja California. This small hummingbird boasts iridescent green plumage, and the males exhibit a rose-pink crown and throat, which can appear black in certain lighting conditions.
The females, while more subtly colored, still display an elegant mix of green and gray. Anna’s hummingbirds are resilient to colder temperatures and are the only species that remains year-round in the U.S.
If you live in the southwest or toward the middle of the U.S., you might be lucky enough to see the Black-chinned Hummingbird along the sides of streams, in river groves, or in your garden. These hummers breed in mountainous regions during the summer they spend the winter in warmer climates. The females are brownish-green on their head and back, while males have a dark head and a touch of purple on their throat.
Woodpeckers are skilled workers, using powerful beaks to drill holes into wood, or sometimes the ground, in search of insects. Once they’ve created the long, narrow hole, they need a way to reach the insects and larvae they’ve found at the far end. This is where having an extra long tongue comes in handy.
A woodpeckers tongue can be up to a third of their total body length, depending on the species. If humans had tongues that long we’d have to wear them like a scarf! Luckily, a woodpeckers skull, and specifically the hyoid bone, is adapted for this extra length. Rather than stopping at the back of the mouth, a woodpecker’s tongue wraps all the way around the back of their skull, and continues over ending right before the nostril.
Let’s look at a few examples of woodpeckers commonly found in North America.
Northern Flickers are commonly found many habitats across the United States. These medium-sized woodpeckers have a distinctive combination of a barred back and spotted breast. In the east the underside of their wings and tail are yellow, while in the west they are red. Northern flickers have the longest tongue of any North American woodpecker, extending two inches past the end of their beak.
This aids the flicker in getting their favorite treat, ants! While many woodpeckers stick to what they can find in trees, the flicker likes to do a lot of its insect foraging on the ground. If they come upon a tasty anthill they can easily use their beak to widen the opening then send down their long, sticky tongue to retrieve the ants.
The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a common woodpecker to see in backyards and forests of the eastern North America. While it does have a red belly, it is just a small patch on their underside that is hard to see. Their most noticeable features are their red head stripe and the bold black-and-white barring on their wings.
Their long tongues come in handy for reaching insects they find in dead wood and behind bark. But they also eat acorns, nuts, fruits, and will visit feeders for suet and birdseed mixes with nuts.
Sapsuckers are members of the woodpecker family, however as their name suggests they focus their wood-drilling efforts on reaching tree sap. You can find sapsuckers in nearly every part of the country, with the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker being the common species in the east. In the summer they head for the north to breed, then move south in the winter to areas where it stays warm enough for the sap to flow.
They will definitely visit backyards, but only if you have sap-producing trees such as birch, hickory and maple. A tell-tale sign they’re around is horizontal rows of small holes visible in the tree bark. After drilling these wells, they can use their tongues to lap up the sap that flows into the holes. Sapsuckers will routinely visit the same holes to re-drill them and ensure the sap continues to flow.
Hummingbirds aren’t found outside of the America’s, so in parts of the world where they are not found, other birds have evolved to fill the nectar-eating niche. The two main groups of birds that take the hummingbirds place are honeyeaters and sunbirds.
Honeyeaters are a diverse group of birds primarily found in Australia and nearby regions, such as New Guinea and some Pacific islands. Known for their specialized feeding habits, honeyeaters have brush-tipped tongues and slender bills that enable them to feed on nectar from flowers. In addition to nectar, honeyeaters also consume insects, spiders, and even fruits, contributing to their omnivorous diet. Their energetic and acrobatic foraging behaviors are delightful to observe.
Sunbirds are small, brightly colored birds found mainly in Africa, Asia, and Australia. Known for their vibrant plumage, these agile birds inhabit a variety of environments, including forests, gardens, and savannahs. Sunbirds are nectarivores, primarily feeding on the nectar of flowering plants.
They have a fairly long down-curved bill and a long, brush-tipped tongue. Both their beak shape and long tongue are well-adapted for sipping nectar from the deep throats of flowers. In addition to nectar, they also consume small insects and spiders for protein. Sunbirds play a crucial role in pollination as they transfer pollen between flowers while feeding.