When we look at our birds, one of the first things we notice is the over-sized protrusion jutting out from its face. It is something we bird lovers have all come to respect enormously and the thing that causes many people their fear of parrots. I thought it would be fun if we took a tour of the inside our bird’s beak and discovered what is (and isn’t) in there.
When you look inside the mouth, right away you will notice there are no teeth present. In fact, birds used to have teeth but started evolving away from them about 2.5 million years ago. Some geese species have serrated edges to their beaks that give them a toothy appearance, but it is an adaptation to their bill called tomia and are not at all actual teeth.
I think we can all agree that our parrots don’t really need teeth. Their present-day diet does not require them and they are very capable of decimating our property without them.
You will also notice a lack of saliva. If you are foolish enough to reach into your parrot’s mouth, you will find it dry. In actuality, there are salivary glands at the back of their mouth that produce the moisture that assists in swallowing dry items like seed and pellets.
At the very back of their mouth is a V-shaped slit with fringed edges called the choana. It is the part of the palate that serves as a barrier between the throat and the nasal passages. Interestingly, this particular area of the mouth gives up a lot of information about your bird’s health. Your avian vet will check the condition the soft barbs that rim the choana for indications of dietary deficiencies and other problems.
The most remarkable occupant in the parrot mouth is definitely the tongue. Unlike our own, which is comprised entirely of muscle tissue, the parrots tongue contains a series of bones called the hyoid apparatus which gives it both rigidity and flexibility. The bones are surrounded by fleshy padding and in lieu of hands, a parrot uses its tongue while exploring its environment.
The bone closest to the tip of the tongue branches into a “Y” shape and creates a slight indentation that helps them keep objects in place against the tip of their tongue while they manipulate them. (You may want to take my words for this – my cockatoo was not amused as I examined this region of his anatomy.) It is fascinating to watch a parrot roll a nut or bead around with his tongue with the same dexterity of at least three human fingers. In fact, I often liken the parrot tongue to a human finger.
There are several recent scientific articles published defining the role of a parrot’s tongue in their ability to mimic human speech. Apparently, they have just now noticed how active a parrot’s tongue is while they are talking and have surmised that it might be more integral to the process than previously thought. Ya think? Try making a “P” or “B” sound without lips. This is an observation we parrot owners made a very long time ago!
The healthy parrot tongue is smooth, unblemished and usually dry. They are generally grey, pink, or black in color. However, there are some very cool exceptions:
The yellow and black hyacinth macaw tongue:
The red and black Palm cockatoo tongue:
And the spectacular brushed end of the lorikeet tongue:
If you ever notice any marks, bumps or lesions on your bird’s tongue or white patches in the mouth, please see your vet right away.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.