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Generalist or Specialist Discussion

Flying Insect Eaters
Black Phoebe
Many birds that catch insects on the wing have stiff narrow feathers called rictal bristles that help them sense and/or gather the insects into their mouths. Notice the rictal bristles on both these birds. The Black Phoebe's beak is wide enough to snatch at flying insects, but phoebes can eat insects on the ground or in trees, or even some fruits. The whip-poor-will's beak is much wider than the phoebe's, but is so soft and fragile that whip-poor-wills can't pick up food that isn't in flight. So the Whip-poor-will is more of a specialist.
Seed Eaters
Goldfinches and crossbills both eat seeds. But goldfinches can eat many kinds of weed seed, and also berries. Crossbill beaks are designed to pry open the scales of cones from pines, spruces, or other evergreens. But they're so good at that that they don't eat much else. So the crossbill is more of a specialist.
Nectar Eaters
Sicklebill (hummingbird)
Woodstar (hummingbird)
These are both tropical hummingbirds. The woodstar can dip its beak into many kinds of tropical flowers to feed. But the sicklebill is specially adapted to feed on one common flower most hummers just can't get their beaks into, the heliconia, which protects its nectar at the bottom of a long, curved tube. So the sicklebill is more of a specialist.
Curlew beaks are designed to probe deep into holes to pull out burrowing worms and other invertebrates. Yellowleg beaks can help them get a much wider variety of food, but not those deep burrowers. So the Curlew is more of a specialist.
Fish Eaters
Mergansers are ducks, and those serrations, nicknamed "teeth" along the edge of their bill help them to catch more fish than most ducks. That makes them more specialized than most ducks. But mergansers can catch fish, insects, frogs, and many other little creatures in the water. Pelicans have such a huge pouch and such a long beak that they are only good for catching large fish, especially when the fish are in groups called schools. So the pelican is more of a specialist than the merganser.


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