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Birds Start With Teeth

Read the BIRD TALK October 2011 Editor's Note.

By Laura Doering

I imagine a select few have ever witnessed a bird chip its way out of the eggshell and into the world. I stumbled upon just such a thing during a visit to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles with some friends years ago.

I didn’t make it past the first exhibit. It was an open aquarium with half a dozen recently hatched chickens, so exhausted in their efforts of chipping and wiggling out of their shells that they resembled little castaways washed ashore, draped across each other for warmth, and slowly willing themselves to inch closer to nearby heat lamps.

Eight or so eggs were still intact. I had my eye on one egg in particular because it had a little hole near the top, and you could spy movement inside. I began cheering this little egg on and couldn’t fathom how other museum visitors walked by, passing up the opportunity to witness an amazing feat. The egg was doing a whirly dance: roll, rest, roll, rest, roll. Bit by bit, the hole got bigger and bigger until I could see the tip of the beak coming out and disappearing back into the shell. This went on for an hour or so, and then I reluctantly joined my friends for the the IMAX movie on sharks down the hall.

I returned to my egg an hour later and was happy to see its little head waving. A little while later, there was enough shell gone for the chick to fall free of it. I clapped and startled the lady next to me.

The little chick obviously used what was left of his energy reserves in this last effort, for he could barely move. His secret weapon for winning his freedom? A little keratinous growth on the tip of the beak called the egg tooth. All birds have this pseudo tooth when they hatch, but they lose it soon after. Your bird had one, and I’m sure my cockatiel still thinks he has his, evident by the way he bangs his beak against his perch when he whistles to his reflection.

Imagine if birds kept their teeth? Would we rethink reaching into the cage or lament the extra cost of dental care? Check out “When Birds Had Teeth” on Page 16 to see how birds evolved from dinosaurs and why they ditched teeth for beaks!

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