My life is about living with nature – here you can live it with me!

Understanding the bird’s toe arrangement

Hawk Toes
Red-tailed Hawk toes up close

Birds are recognized as being the “superb flyers” of the world. Although their wings are what helps them fly . . . . it is their feet and bill that help distinguish what ecological niche that hey live in. By studying their feet we can understand unusual behaviors and where they spend most hours of the day (tree, ground, water). We can look at the birds of prey who have armor protecting it from being bitten and sharp talons for grasping its prey. The grebe toes are lobed which will expand or contract as the bird swims or dives under water. Chickadees will uses its toes for grasp sunflower seed and then peck through the shell to get to the meat of the seed. Although there are many obvious features of the birds feet that helps it survive (as listed above) . . . I plan to discuss the 5 different toe arrangements that our birds have that help make those obvious features work!

The 5 Different Toe Arrangements

Toe arrangements: a = anisodactyl, b = zygodactyl, c = heterodactyl,
d = syndactyl, & e = pamprodactyl (as illustrated in Proctor and Lynch 1993)

Anisodactyl describes a foot having three toes in front and one behind. It is the most common arrangement of the avian toe and the one seen in songbirds and perching birds. Having the first digit in the back, it reminds me of how our human thumb works when we are “grasping something”.
2,3,4 (second, third & forth digit in the front)
1 (first digit in the back)

Bald Eagle Foot Anisodactyl Toe Arrangement
Anisodactyl arrangement of the Bald Eagle & American Goldfinch

Zygodactyl foot has two toes facing forward and two facing backward. This is the second most common toe arrangement in perching birds. It is found in the osprey (Family Pandionidae) , most woodpeckers (Family Picidae), owls (Order Strigiformes), cuckoos, parrots, mousebirds, and some swifts. This foot pattern helps the bird grasping branches and moving around on branches.
2,3 (second & third digit in the front)
1,4 (first & forth digit in the back)

Zygodactyl Toe Arrangement
Zygodactyl arrangement of the Downy Woodpecker

Pamprodactyl foot has all four toes in front, as seen in most swifts (Family Apodidae). The first and fourth digits pivot freely foreword and backward. Swifts often rotate all four toes forward and use their tiny feet as hooks to help hang while roosting on the walls of chimneys, caves, or hollow trees.
1,2,3,4 (first & forth digit can be moved to the front)

Pamprodactyl Toe Arrangement
Pamprodactyl arrangement of the Chimney Swift

Syndactyl foot has two front toes (second and third digits) partially joined or webbed for much of their length. This foot pattern is common in kingfishers (Family Alcedinidae), hornbills (Family Bucerotidae), and rollers (Order Coraciiformes).
2-3,4 (second & third digits are fused together, forth is in the front)
1 (first digit is in the back)

Belted Kingfisher Great Indian Hornbill
Belted Kingfisher and Great Indian Hornbill (sorry, no photos of their toes)

Heterodactyl foot is similar to the Zygodactyl foot except that the inner (second) toe is reversed in the heterodactyl type. This is to help the short, weak first digit in gripping branches. This type is found only in trogons (Order Trogoniformes, Family Trogonidae).
3,4 (third & forth digit in the front)
2,1 (second & first digit in the back)

Sorry, I don’t have any photos of Trogons but you can see two good examples at Panama Birds’ Violaceus Trogon Photo and Willy Gil’s Masked Trogon photo for the Heterodactyl Arrangement.

Here is a birdQUIZ for everyone to try!

Red-necked Grebe (under foot) Grebe Feet
What is the toe arrangement of the Red-necked Grebe?

Barred Owl
What is the toe arrangement of the Barred Owl?

Wild Turkey Foot
What is the toe arrangement of the Wild Turkey?

Your choices are: anisodactyl, zygodactyl, pamprodactyl, syndactyl, or heterodactyl.

Now take the time and really watch the birds feet when they are at your bird feeders!! Watch how some species are using their toes compared to some of the other species at your feeders. You probably will find anisodactyl and zygodactyl toe arrangements in your feeder birds (unless you have trogons or hornbills in your back yard). Have fun studying your birds!

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Related References:

  • Proctor, N.S. and P.J. Lynch. 1993. Manual of ornithology: avian structure and function. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven.

28 responses

  1. I love it when you do these informative posts! Great work. 🙂

    ~ Nick

    9 December 2007 at 2:01 pm

  2. Okay, I fail the bird quiz right off because I couldn’t id the grebe feet using any of the choices you gave. I figure them to be lobate.
    The barred owl is just plain scary. They’re raptorial. How about zygodactyl?
    How about the third one is anisodactyl.
    Obviously I need to study bird toes more! I think your post is *very* interesting and I’ll be watching birdie toes from now on!!

    9 December 2007 at 2:23 pm

  3. Wow, what great info! Thanks for teaching.
    PS Love the Happy Holiday sign 🙂

    9 December 2007 at 2:35 pm

  4. @ Nick – thanks!
    @ Pam – yes lobate is the type of feet that the grebe has but lobate isn’t any of the 5 toes arrangements listed. Confusing but think of the lobed toes like the type of shoes they are wearing (hiking boots, sneakers, highheels, etc). Will not give away any answer to the questions yet!
    @ Chicago – thanks and did you click on the happy holiday sign?

    9 December 2007 at 3:00 pm

  5. Lisa at Greenbow

    Monarch, I can’t even pronounce those words how do you think I can figure out which foot is what??? Thanks for the lesson though. I have been facinated with American Coot feet ever since I saw one standing on a frozen pond. I can still see the Syndactal (?) toes. The color of the legs was so different maybe becasue it was so cold or ?.

    9 December 2007 at 5:09 pm

  6. Tom, I will be back to read and reread this post. You are a fabulous writer. This is so interesting. I love all the pictures, and especially the bald Eagle picture of his toes and claws. I never realized they were so huge! ~Nita~

    9 December 2007 at 6:02 pm

  7. Turkeys do perch in trees sometimes. I’m guessing it would be the first toe arrangement example being it has 2,3,4 and 1 is in the back, doesn’t it? I’m not sure about the owl (or the turkey for that matter, ha.)

    9 December 2007 at 6:56 pm

  8. Oh, so interesting, as usual. I laughed out loud at your holiday sign =)

    9 December 2007 at 7:05 pm

  9. LOL Tom!! Okay, let me try again with the grebe! Anisodactyl? Sorry it’s a SWAG! I’m assuming without looking it up they have a toe in the back somewhere? You’re killing me here!

    9 December 2007 at 7:25 pm

  10. @ Lisa – thanks and this isn’t an easy post for sure! Syndactal layout are from the kingfishers (Family Alcedinidae), hornbills (Family Bucerotidae), and rollers (Order Coraciiformes). My “guess” is a Coots foot is anisodactyl with the first toe in the back and the other three in the front. Not sure about the colors and just think it’s color is just their color!
    @ Nita – thanks and this wasn’t an easy post to write! Hard to explain complicated things easily! They are very large for sure!
    @ Erie – you are on the right track for sure! The Owl is a tricky one for sure!
    @ Rondi – thanks and I thought the holiday wishing was very fun!
    @ Pam – no worries and if you click on the photo of its underside of the foot . . you can see its 4th toe easier!

    9 December 2007 at 7:33 pm

  11. I’d need to re-read this post and study TOES before I could come close to passing the quiz, but I enjoyed this – it all makes sense. Great job. Those talons were HUGE!

    9 December 2007 at 9:17 pm

  12. I have never paid any attention to the bird’s toes. There they are and they cling or hop about. Hummm…I shall pay attention now to toes.
    I always look at beaks.
    Thank you Tom.

    9 December 2007 at 9:29 pm

  13. This is great information especially for me when it comes to drawing the birds. I’ll be back for a better look and will most definitely pay closer attention in the spring when I band with Sarah. Right now I’m trying to get caught up again. As usual. BTW I did notice the holiday elves here and on your flickr. 😉

    9 December 2007 at 10:20 pm

  14. Thanks for the information! Although I’ve been birding for years, I’d never really taken note of or further researched toe arrangements. This will be a great help in my art.

    9 December 2007 at 11:01 pm

  15. @ Mary – glad you enjoyed this and they are big for sure!
    @ Sherry – what most don’t realize is that birds walk entirely on their toes and not on their whole foot like we think most animals do. So now you are experienced with their bills, you are ready to start looking at other parts of the birds! Sounds like a perfect time to post this!
    @ Toni – Understanding all the parts of the birds would be very helpful to you. Will have to keep me updated with Sarah’s schedule, maybe this year we can head out their to do a little banding with your guys! The Happy Holiday Elfs were fun for sure! Thanks
    @ Lana – Glad you found some use to this post! Little confusing at first . . . I had a hard time trying to figure out how to write but make it so everyone could understand.

    9 December 2007 at 11:16 pm

  16. OK now I’m going to be smiling and thinking about grebe toes all day long. They look more like leaves! 🙂

    10 December 2007 at 9:45 am

  17. is toe really the propert nomenclature?

    10 December 2007 at 11:40 am

  18. Kaz

    Well I’d fail your quiz. As much as I liked reading your explanations, I don’t retain those kind of facts longer than the time it took to read it. Your photos are great, definitely helps to get the idea.

    I do have a question in regards to the Red Tail Hawk though. I mentioned the other day to my hubby that I don’t remember RTH’s as having such white chest areas in the summer months as they do in the winter months. Is it winter plumage (I think that is the term?) or is it just me finally noticing something that has always been there? Remember, I’m not a birder…… but I’ll stop for a RTH any day!

    10 December 2007 at 2:43 pm

  19. @ Rurality – Those are great!! My fave of all the bird toes!
    @ workisboring – Sure is, this is what my lab book states “Birds are called digitigrade because they actually walk on their toes and not on all of the food bones (as humans do).”
    @ Kaz – It’s an open book test! Ya, sorry to say that they have always looked that way to me! LOL!

    10 December 2007 at 4:38 pm

  20. Cool topic, and as always, very informative text, and lovely photos!

    10 December 2007 at 7:14 pm

  21. Mon@rch,
    This is great. Thanks for putting so much work and enthusiasm into the post. My desk job makes my mind hungry for this kind of learning. You have sharpened my vision. I’m a bit worried because my decrepit toenails look a bit like that grebe’s feet.

    10 December 2007 at 9:49 pm

  22. @ Adam – glad you enjoyed them!
    @ Crayons – glad you enjoyed this and be sure to look closer at all features of the birds! Hmm, sounds like you are evolving into a grebe??

    Grebe have anisodactyl toes
    Barred Owl have zygodactyl toes
    Wild Turkey have anisodactyl toes

    10 December 2007 at 11:36 pm

  23. A wonderful effort indeed.

    11 December 2007 at 1:55 am

  24. Marg

    This looks good-and when I have time to read it I’m going to come back to it (I wonder when that will be?)

    11 December 2007 at 9:36 am

  25. What a fantastic post, Tom ~ very informative!
    And I love birdie toes! 😀

    11 December 2007 at 1:47 pm

  26. What a great lesson in bird anatomy/function Tom! Thanks! You are such a good educator, but then we already knew that. :c)

    12 December 2007 at 6:51 am

  27. Great lesson and although I didn’t do the quiz, I appreciate the pictures and descriptions.

    12 December 2007 at 5:41 pm

  28. @ krsnakhandelwal – long name! thanks for your kind words!
    @ Marg – I sure hope you do!
    @ Lisa – thanks and always great learning things!
    @ Jayne – so glad you enjoyed this! I try at least!
    @ Marty – I have already given the answers! Thanks

    13 December 2007 at 7:14 am

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