When Mother Nature decides to specialize an animal, she sure does it with style! These birds have some of the most amazing beaks and bills in the avian kingdom. Whether flashy or functional, they all have flare.

Rhinoceros hornbill

rhinocerous hornbill on perch Photo: David Evison/Shutterstock

The rhinocerous hornbill has a name as impressive as its unbelievable bill. Atop its bill is a feature called a casque, which has a striking upward curve like a rhino horn, hence the bird's common name. The strong bill is used for reaching fruit from thin tree branches, and that impressive casque is used as a resonating chamber to amplify their loud calls.

rhinocerous hornbill profile Photo: mark higgins/Shutterstock

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Red crossbill

red crossbill, incredible beaks A red crossbill perched on a branch in Fremont National Forest in central Oregon. (Photo: Bob Pool/Shutterstock)

The red crossbill sports a bill that would be viewed as a deformity in most other finch species. But for this species, it is the perfect way to get at its primary food source, the seeds held within pinecones. Even tightly closed cones can be accessed thanks to the unusual shape of its bill. The bird places the tips of the bill under a cone scale and bites down, which pushes the scale up and exposes the seed.

A female red crossbill rests on a moss covered branch A female red crossbill rests on a moss covered branch. (Photo: Robert L Kothenbeutel/Shutterstock)

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Black skimmer

black skimmer beak Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr

The black skimmer has a truly unique bill among shorebirds, and really, among all North American birds. The bill is large yet very thin, and the lower mandible extends out past the upper mandible. These features make it ideal for how this bird catches food. As it flies, it dips the lower mandible into the water, skimming for fish. The razor-thin bill can slice through the water and, when it senses a fish, snaps the upper mandible down onto it. The skimmer is the only bird species in North and South America with such a foraging technique.

black skimmer skimming Photo: Dan Pancamo @pancamo [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

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Roseate spoonbill

roseate spoonbill Photo: Steve Snodgrass [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Three guesses for how this bird got its common name. The roseate spoonbill is one of several species of spoonbill, all of which sport this uniquely shaped bill. It feeds in shallow fresh and coastal waters; walking while moving the bill from side to side, it uses its beak to strain small food items from water such as crustaceans, aquatic insects and small fish.

spoonbills in water Photo: Harold Wagle, finalist, NWRA 2012 photo contest, USFWS [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

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Shoebill

shoebill profile Photo: Michael Gwyther-Jones [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Like the spoonbill, the shoebill's name has a rather obvious source. This stork-like bird has a bill shaped like a large shoe, and is, of course, the bird's most notable feature. The sharp edges of the mandibles help the bird kill its fishy prey and also discard vegetation caught along the way. It also has a sharp hook at the tip, making it possible for the bird to grip, crush, and pierce prey all at once. In other words, this bird is as tough as it looks.

shoebill standing up Photo: Heather Paul [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr

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Long-billed curlew

long-billed curlew in water Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

The long-billed curlew is a North American shorebird that spends winters on the coast and breeds in grasslands. Its long bill is adapted for both places, catching shrimp and crabs living in deep burrows in tidal mudflats, and also snatching up earthworms in pastures. The bill is one of the longest of any shorebird, rivaling that of the far eastern curlew. The female has a longer bill than the male, and hers has a slightly different shape. While the male's bill curves along its entire length, hers is slightly flatter on top with a more pronounced curve at the tip.

long-billed curlew feeding Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

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Sword-billed hummingbird

sword-billed hummingbird in flight Photo: Rosalie Kreulen/Shutterstock

The sword-billed hummingbird has the longest beak relative to its body size of any bird in the world. In fact, it's the only bird that sometimes has a bill longer than its body. The bill is so long, the hummingbird must groom itself with its feet. It also has to perch with its head tilted at an upward angle to be able to balance. But the upside is it can feed on flowers with particularly long corollas, reaching nectar that is unavailable to other hummingbird species.

sword-billed hummingbird on perch Photo: Mark Caunt/Shutterstock

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Great hornbill

great hornbill profile Photo: Anan Chincho/Shutterstock

The great hornbill is another bird with a particularly impressive bill. This is one of the larger species along with the rhinocerous hornbill. It sports a bright yellow and black casque on top of its already enormous bill. Though it seems to serve no purpose, the hollow casque may be used for sexual selection. And interestingly, the males of the species have been seen head-butting each other with their casques while in flight.

great hornbil in flight Photo: kajornyot wildlife photography/Shutterstock

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Toco toucan

tocu toucans Photo: Michael Gwyther-Jones [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

We could never leave out the toco toucan from this list. Its amazing bill accounts for between 30-50% of its entire body surface area. Good for reaching things that would otherwise be too far away, the toucan's bill may also be good for peeling skin from fruit, intimidating other birds, and scaring off predators. However, scaring them is all it could really do. The bill is made of a honeycomb of keratin, so it is not particularly heavy nor strong. But that structure also helps it regulate body temperature. Recent research has suggested that by adjusting blood flow to the bill, toucans can release more body heat and stay cool.

toucan profile Photo: William Warby [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

toucan hiding There's no hiding for this toucan. (Photo: Martin Pettitt [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

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Keel-billed toucan

keel-billed toucan on perch Photo: Grand Velas Riviera Maya [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

Another species of toucan with a particularly amazing bill is the keel-billed toucan. It has the same functions as the bill of the toco toucan, but adds some rainbow colors in splashy patterns. That's how it gets its alternate name, the rainbow-billed toucan.

keel-billed toucan with food Photo: Brian Gratwicke [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

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American white pelican

pelicans with crests on bills Photo: Kolin Toney [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

Who wouldn't love their mouth to double as a purse?! Pelicans have truly amazing bills, with a pouch of skin, called a throat sac, connected to the lower mandible to act as a net, catching fish and filtering out the water. What's interesting about the American white pelican, shown here, is that during breeding season it makes its bill extra flashy. These pelicans grow a "horn" on the upper bill, which is shed after they lay their eggs. This is the only pelican species to grow such a horn.

American white pelican eats a fish, incredible beaks An American white pelican has an incredible beak with many purposes. (Photo: Glass and Nature/Shutterstock)

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Flamingo

American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) at the Nashville Zoo An American flamingo at the Nashville Zoo. (Photo: Robert Claypool [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

The greater flamingo has one of the most recognized profiles around. But we don't often stop to celebrate that unbelievable beak. It's specialized to be used upside-down, and has a hairy filter-like structure called lamellae lining the mandibles that help separate food from mud and water before expelling the liquid.

flamingos feeding Photo: anthony kelly [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

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Kiwi

kiwi foraging at night Photo: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock

The kiwi is the only bird to have its nostrils at the tip of its beak. Other birds have the nostrils higher up, usually near the base by its face. But not the kiwi. It has the second largest olfactory bulk relative to the size of its forebrain (the condor having the largest), meaning it has an exceptional sense of smell. It uses this sense of smell and these specially placed nostrils to locate food in leaf litter.

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Atlantic puffins

puffin profile Photo: Harald Deischinger [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Flashy red-and-black stripes on its beak is the source of this bird's nicknames: "clown of the sea" and "sea parrot." But the bold color pattern on the beak of the Atlantic puffin is only the beginning of what makes this beak so special. There are serrations on the upper mandible, so the puffin can carry more than 10 fish at once by holding them with its tongue against these serrations.

puffin with fish Photo: Hefin Owen [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

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American avocet

avocet sitting Photo: Mike Baird [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

The American avocet has an elegant, delicate appearance that extends all the way to its long, amazingly thin, and slightly up-curved bill. It swishes its bill from side to side through shallow water, looking for crustaceans and insects. Though it looks too delicate to be believed, the bird uses its bill for feeding and will aggressively attack predators like Northern harriers and ravens.

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

15 birds with unbelievable beaks
These birds have some of the most flashy and specialized beaks around.