May 5, 2021 | Featured Web Article

Did You Know? Birds’ Legs Are Really Their Feet!

The pretty feet and feathered heel of a Carolina chickadee. Photo by B. Wunderlich.

The next time you get a close look at the birds at your feeders, try to notice their legs, and specifically, their leg joints. Good luck. The leg joints of songbirds are usually hidden by the fluffy body feathers on their belly. All we usually see of songbirds are the naked “calf” above their feet. In fact, however, that “calf” is really the bird’s foot bones, fused into one bone called the tarsometatarsus. Birds literally walk on their toes, with their feet and heels in the air. If you’ve taken a good look at long-legged birds, like sandpipers, herons, or, notoriously, flamingos, you may have noticed that their “knees” bend backward. But not really. What appears to be a bird’s knee is really its ankle joint. It bends in the same direction as a human foot and ankle.

Above the long, featherless foot bone we see clearly on songbirds, and above that ankle joint is the muscular, feathered calf (containing a bone called the tibiotarsus), and at the top of that, often tucked against the belly below the wings, are the true knees of a bird. They bend in the same direction as ours.

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