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Beak or Bill?

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Old Sunday 6th September 2009, 17:26   #1
ChrisKten
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Beak or Bill?

I wasn't (and still aren't) sure where to put this, but settled for this sub-forum.

I've looked online, but I keep reading conflicting opinions on this, is it "Beak" or "Bill"? It seems that they are interchangeable at times; or that people use the first one that pops into their head.

I've read that if a bird has either a thin, weak, flat, beak, or is a member of the Pigeon Family, it's a "Bill". But then why is a Crossbill not called a Crossbeak, and why is a Grossbeak not a Grossbill.

I've also read that if a bird eats meat (Raptors, Corvids) it has a "Beak", otherwise it has a "Bill".

Is it really this confusing?
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Old Sunday 6th September 2009, 18:15   #2
fugl
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Originally Posted by ChrisKten View Post
I wasn't (and still aren't) sure where to put this, but settled for this sub-forum.

I've looked online, but I keep reading conflicting opinions on this, is it "Beak" or "Bill"? It seems that they are interchangeable at times; or that people use the first one that pops into their head.

I've read that if a bird has either a thin, weak, flat, beak, or is a member of the Pigeon Family, it's a "Bill". But then why is a Crossbill not called a Crossbeak, and why is a Grossbeak not a Grossbill.

I've also read that if a bird eats meat (Raptors, Corvids) it has a "Beak", otherwise it has a "Bill".

Is it really this confusing?
Not so confusing, actually. Here’s how the OED defines ‘bill’—“The horny ‘beak” of certain birds, especially when slender, flattened, or weak”. And here is how it describes the differences in usage between ‘beak’ & ‘bill’:

“In Ornithology, ‘beak’ is the general term applicable to all birds; in ordinary language ‘beak’ is always used of birds of prey, & generally when striking or pecking is in question; ‘beak’ & ‘bill’ are both used of crows, finches, sparrows, perching birds & songsters generally, ‘bill’ being however more frequent; ‘bill’ is almost exclusively used of hummingbirds, pigeons, waders, & web-footed birds”.

At least some of this makes sense to me—I don’t think I’d ever speak of a snipe’s or hummingbird’s ‘beak’, for example, or of a hawk's 'bill'.

Last edited by fugl : Sunday 6th September 2009 at 22:02.
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Old Sunday 6th September 2009, 18:40   #3
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Thanks for replying, fugl.

Some of it also makes sense to me (though probably not as much as it should ).

I've noticed in different ID threads, that even for the same species, both terms are used. So I guess I'm not the only one that gets confused about which to use. The one that springs to mind, that I've always used "bill" for is Duck. I guess I also wouldn't say a Spoonbill's beak either. Same with Corvids and Raptors, "bill" doesn't sound right. But I'm pretty sure I've used "beak" for Pigeons, when, apparently, I shouldn't have.
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Old Sunday 6th September 2009, 18:54   #4
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I tend to say beak but occasionally bill, as you say it's whichever I think of first!
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Old Monday 7th September 2009, 12:19   #5
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Slender-billed Gull

Sword-billed Hummingbird

Pine Grosbeak

Hook-billed Kite OOOPS!

I doubt a literature review would come up with any consistency in practice, whatever the theory is!

John
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Old Monday 7th September 2009, 17:06   #6
Dave B Smith
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...I've read that if a bird has either a thin, weak, flat, beak, or is a member of the Pigeon Family, it's a "Bill". But then why is a Crossbill not called a Crossbeak, and why is a Grossbeak not a Grossbill...
Ah, the exception that proves the rule
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Old Monday 7th September 2009, 17:54   #7
fugl
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The “rule” seems to hold pretty well for long-billed taxa such as shorebirds & hummingbirds, however. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of a “long-beaked” bird of any kind.

But mammals appear to be another story, e.g., Long-beaked Common Dolphin, Long-beaked Echidna.
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