Talons - Bird Feet

Definition of Bird Claws

Osprey Talons
An osprey has powerful talons for hunting fish. Photo © Pete Markham/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0

Definition:

(noun) A bird's talon is the sharp, hooked claw at the end of the toe. Birds have one talon on every toe. Talons differ in shape and size depending on how the bird will use its talons and how worn individual talons may be.

Pronunciation:

TAH-luhn
(rhymes with gallon and allen)

About Bird Talons

Talons are most prominent on carnivorous birds that need to catch and dismember prey, such as hawks, eagles and owls.

On raptors, talons are often long and sharp, and proportionally thicker than on other birds for greater strength to pierce prey's hide or skin and cut into the victim sufficiently for a mortal wound. A raptor's talons must be strong enough to hold struggling prey until it dies or the bird can further injure its meal with its bill.

Talons may be most commonly associated with raptors, but all birds have these sharp claws, and they all use them for a range of different purposes. While the exact ways a bird will use its talons depend on its individual needs and its foot and leg strength, common ways birds use their talons include...

  • Preening areas that cannot be reached with the bird's bill, such as the nape or head
  • Itching at parasites or insects in the feathers or on bare patches of skin
  • Gripping a surface while perched or unbalanced, such as in windy conditions
  • Climbing trees while foraging, particularly for woodpeckers, nuthatches or creepers
  • Carrying items, including nesting material, food or prey
  • Digging a nesting burrow or a scrape nest, or rearranging an existing nest structure
  • Gently moving eggs during incubation to distribute heat more evenly
  • Moving leaf litter or similar debris while foraging on the forest floor or at the high tide line
  • Holding food steady while eating, such as cracking nuts or large seeds to extract the meat

Aggressive birds may also use their talons as weapons, attacking intruders, predators or other birds that may be competing for mates, food or territory. Those same birds may also use their talons for defense when they are under attack themselves, or when their mate or nest is threatened.

Identifying Birds by Their Talons

Talons are made of keratin and continue growing throughout a bird's life. Most talons are continually worn down through use, though in rare instances a growth defect can lead to a malformed talon that may be overly long or may curve in a unique way. The length, thickness and curvature of talons varies for each bird species and what the talons are used for, and in extreme cases, talons may be useful for identification. When talons are particularly noticeable, birders should consider...

  • The color of the talons, including whether they change color along their length or if they contrast with a toe or webbed foot. Be aware, however, that talons can be stained by blood, mud or debris and the color may not be accurate. Light conditions and angle of viewing can also affect how a talon's color may appear.
     
  • The overall claw length, particularly as compared to the size of the bird's foot. Some birds, such as jacanas, have exceptionally long talons to help balance on lily pads or unstable marsh surfaces, which can be a good clue for proper bird identification. Pay attention to each talon on a bird's foot to be sure they all exhibit the same characteristics, or note which talon is boldly different.
     
  • Claw curvature, especially if the talons seem excessively curved. Birds that regularly climb up and down tree trunks often have more severely curved claws that can better grip uneven or broken surfaces, providing a firmer, more stable grip.
     
  • Overall talon thickness, particularly compared to the toe. Birds with very thick, strong talons are more likely to be efficient birds of prey and use their talons as deadly weapons when hunting. Thickness can be deceptive, however, if a bird's talons are caked with mud, blood or debris.

    These clues, along with other clues about birds' feet, can help birders properly identify different species and better appreciate how birds use their feet and talons.

    Learn more about different types of bird feet, including different talons!

    Also Known As:

    Claw, Nail