Make the McKenzie Connection!

Eating without teeth

How can birds eat if they have no teeth?

Photo of heronby eNature

Most people, even most kids, know that birds have no teeth.

Likewise, it’s common knowledge that quite a few birds consume almost exclusively hard foods such as grains and seeds.

So so how do birds digest these tough morsels if they can’t chew them into more edible pieces?

The answer lies in a bird’s stomach—in the lower part of its stomach, to be specific, the area called the gizzard. It’s here that the powerful mixing and gnashing of food that occurs in human mouths takes place in birds.

But rather than bicuspids, molars, and the like, the gizzard uses small rocks, shells, and sand to break apart hard foods. The bird swallows these rocks and whatnot specifically to help with digestion. And when they wear down, as inevitably happens, the bird simply passes them on as waste and consumes a fresh supply.

Almost every species of bird has a gizzard,as do some species of reptiles, earthworms and fish.  A bird’s gizzard has thick, muscular walls and is lined with a protective substance known as koiln.

So having a gizzard is a bit like having a drawer filled with spare teeth—only without the dentist’s bills!

Attracting Birds: Food

There are many kinds of bird foods, but the best foods for wild birds are the kinds that grow on the natural cover or the vegetation in a backyard bird habitat, such as fruits, seeds, nuts and even insects. Therefore, when planning the kinds of cover to plant in your backyard, keep in mind that if the cover also produces food, it will be satisfying two of the three requirements of a successful backyard bird habitat.

Nevertheless, virtually everyone who invites birds to their backyard, does so with bird feeders, the crown jewels of the bird habitat. Bird feeders draw birds out of the natural cover to the foods that are located close to windows or patios where the birds can be seen and enjoyed.


There are many kinds of bird feeders, and many kinds of foods that go into those feeders. In order to maximize the numbers and kinds of birds that are attracted to your backyard, it is a best to place feeders in all the feeding niches: ground level, eye level, tree hanging, and tree trunk. The feeders in each niche will attract different kinds of birds, though there is some overlap. The placement of bird feeders is critical in two respects: First, they need to be located in or near the kinds of cover into which birds can escape should they be threatened by a neighborhood cat, dog, or winged predator such as a hawk or owl. Otherwise, the birds may not feel safe at the feeders, and may not use them.

The second consideration is to place feeders close to windows where you can have a good view of them. The reason for providing feeders and houses for wild birds is for the enjoyment of the bird gardener, not for the benefit of the birds, which can survive very well without any help from people.


When selecting birdhouses, it is important to consider the property you live on. If you live near a body of water, consider placing wood duck houses on the shoreline. Wren houses can be hung from fruit trees, or placed on posts at eye level around the yard, in or near cover. It would not be out of line to place at least three wren houses in the garden area, as the male will fill them all with sticks, and the female will then choose one for a family.

With the exception of wrens, birds do not tolerate swaying birdhouses. Birdhouses should be firmly anchored to a post, a tree, or the side of a building. All houses should be cleaned at least once a year. The smaller houses can be stored during the winter, but the larger houses can be left as possible winter roosting sites for any number of interesting birds.


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