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Zygodactyl Toe Arrangement

Most birds have four toes, three pointing forward and one back. A quick look in the snow beneath your bird feeder will confirm this. Exceptions to this rule include woodpeckers, owls and ospreys, among others, whose toe arrangement is 2 and 2: two of their toes (the middle two) point forward, and the outer toes point backwards.  The term for this arrangement is zygodactyl

Different species have evolved this toe arrangement to meet different needs.  It enhances the ability of woodpeckers to hold onto limbs and climb up vertical tree trunks, while owls and ospreys can get a better grasp of slippery or wiggly prey.  (Woodpeckers can pivot one of their back toes to the side, and owls can pivot one of their back toes forward, as well.)

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4 responses

  1. Zygodactyl toe arrangement! Wow! That’s really interesting! I have polydactyl cats! Just being silly! 🙂 ❤

    January 21, 2023 at 10:35 am

  2. Hawks and definitely eagles have to hold onto wiggly prey too. Do these birds sometimes drop creatures?

    January 21, 2023 at 11:28 am

  3. Alice

    I see Downy Woodpeckers & a Red-bellied at the feeders every day…don’t think I was aware of the toe feature…just familiar with passerines.

    January 21, 2023 at 12:25 pm

  4. David Govatski

    We also have tridactyl woodpeckers in northern New England. The black-backed and American three-toed woodpeckers being the two we have with three toes instead of four on each foot.

    January 21, 2023 at 4:53 pm

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