Bird legs and feet

, 25 April 2021
Bird legs and feet
Redshank and Greenshank

Identifying birds is often a challenge and can be a matter of “spot the difference”. Sometimes leg colour separates similar species and a few birds are named after their legs, like the Redshank and Greenshank above..

There is such variation in the feet and legs of birds that you can sometimes recognise birds on those parts alone – length, shape and colour – try these three (answers at bottom of page).

Redshank legs 8479

Coot feet  2

Black winged Stilt legs 03374 2

Long legs for wading in deep water, different arrangement of toes, webbed or lobed feet for swimming, gripping toes for perching or catching prey, long talons for gripping and sometimes killing prey, long toes to spread the weight,  feathered legs, bright coloured legs to impress a mate.

When you look at a bird it seems that its knees bend backwards, but what you can see is its ankle - the knee joint is tucked up close to the body and hidden by feathers. The best bird legs and feet information is at

 Mute Swan feet 0081

Five Footy Facts

  • Many water birds have a counter current heat exchanger in their legs to reduce heat loss. Warm blood flowing out to the feet passes by cold blood coming in. This also means they can stand on ice without melting it!
  • Sanderling lack the hind toe, which may be why they can run so fast along the sandy beach
  • Sometimes Mute Swans swim with their webbed feet out of the water - photo above - but we haven’t found out why.
  • Woodpeckers feet are Zygodactyl, with two toes facing forward and two backward to support their weight on a vertical trunk.
  • The claws on the middle toes of Grey Heron have grooves to comb their feathers and their skin produces a fine powder that is combed over their plumage to remove fishy slime.

 Grey heron clawThis photo of a Grey Heron claw is from Andrew Bloomfield’s blog 



Answers to the three leg photos:

Redshank legs 8479 2 Common Redshank

Coot feet Coot

Black winged Stilt legs 03374 Black-winged Stilt

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