What Is the Difference Between a Softbill Bird and a Hookbill?

Hint: It's not the beak

Macaw parrots snuggle at the newly opened Parrot Jungle Island July 23, 2003 in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The terms "softbill" and "hookbill" are used to describe different types of birds based on their diet, not solely on their beaks. Although hookbill birds have hooked beaks, the beaks of softbills are not soft. The "soft" refers to the food they eat. If you have acquired a pet bird, feeding the proper diet is important. Check with your vet for specifics, but some generalities can be drawn from whether the bird is categorized as hookbill or softbill.

Hookbill Bird Characteristics

Hookbills are birds in the parrot family—from tiny parakeets to impressive macaws. The one thing they all have in common is that curved hook-like beak. The beaks of hookbills are capable of tremendous strength and can crush the tough shells of nuts, seeds, and thick-skinned fruits, which enables hookbills to eat a different diet than softbills. Knowing that a bird is a hookbill gives you a vague idea of the types of food it eats.

Hookbill Bird Diet in Captivity

In the wild, the primary diet of hookbill birds varies. Most macaws eat seeds, fruits, roots, berries, and nuts, but the blue-throated and green-winged macaws favor fruit and flowers with only some nuts and seeds. Cockatoos eat seeds, fruits, and insects, while lorikeets eat nectar, seeds insects, and pollen.  Cockatiels and parakeets favor grains and seeds.

In captivity, hookbill birds should receive:

  • specialized pellets (for 60 to 70 percent of diet)
  • fresh vegetables
  • fruit
  • small amounts of fortified seeds
  • fresh water daily

Softbill Bird Characteristics

Softbilled birds eat soft foods, such as nectar, fruit, and insects. The list of softbill birds is extensive, but among them are canaries, finches, hummingbirds, sunbirds, bee-eaters, robins, kingfishers, crows fruit doves, and mousebirds.


Softbill Bird Diet in Captivity 

In the wild, softbills feed on fruit and other soft foods including, nectar, buds, flowers, leaves and small insects, snails and slugs. In captivity, their diet should include:

  • a mix of low-iron softbill diet
  • mixed dried fruit
  • fresh or frozen produce that is chopped into pieces about 1/4 inch in size. Suitable fruits include pomegranates, pears, cantaloupe, grapes, figs, kiwi, bananas, apples, and oranges. Suitable vegetables include corn, carrots, tomatoes, and finely chopped lettuce.
  • flowers such as pansies, roses, marigolds, dandelions, and nasturtiums
  • protein in the form of mild cheese (grated) and hard-boiled eggs
  • fruit tree branches with flowers and buds when available
  • fresh water daily

All food given to birds should be pesticide-free and preferably organic.

Foods Not to Give to Any Birds

Some foods should never be given to any birds. They are toxic to all birds—hookbills and softbills alike. They are:

  • avocado
  • chocolate
  • onion and garlic
  • fruit pits and apple seeds
  • high-fat, high-sugar and high-sodium foods
  • sugar-free candy
  • alcohol or caffeine
  • dried beans (cooked beans are safe)

Some foods are not recommended, but they can occasionally be fed in small quantities. Check with your vet first.

They are:

  • peanuts
  • grit
  • dairy
  • mushrooms
  • leaves of plants in the nightshade family—the fruits of tomato, pepper, and eggplants are edible, but the plants and leaves are toxic in some cases. Also toxic are the leaves of rhubarb plants.