Webbed feet are adaptations made by many birds to help them swim faster – it’s especially common with aquatic birds, as well as many reptiles and mammals.
In today’s article, we’ll be learning about different species of birds with webbed feet and how they use them.
Note: The birds are ranked in no particular order.
Scientific name (family): Anatidae
Ducks are largely aquatic birds, found on every continent except for Antarctica.
They usually live near the edges of rivers, lakes, swamps, and other bodies of water. Most ducks prefer fresh water, but some have been spotted in lagoons.
Similar to geese, ducks have entirely webbed feet, which makes them very good swimmers. Moving away from the ground into the water is one of the most effective ways of escaping predators in the wild.
Although they’re aquatic, they also feed on land, usually eating seeds and plants. If possible, these water birds with webbed feet will eat small insects, snails, and fish, but this is rare.
Scientific name (family): Anatidae
Just like ducks, geese have the palmate type of webbed feet. This means that three out of four digits are connected by the webbing. The hind toe isn’t webbed (and if it were, it would only slow them down).
They are particularly aquatic during the process of molting. Molting is the shedding of old feathers. Geese replace them with new ones, and during this process, they can’t fly.
To stay safe from predators, they swim away from the shore where they’re untouchable.
Scientific name (genus): Cygnus
Swans are some of the largest waterfowl, and while their feet are the same as the feet of ducks and geese, they’re usually larger.
They spend most of their lives in water, but they’re often seen on land and are not as clumsy as some other aquatic birds.
Although they often stick their heads in the water, swans are not diving birds – they never completely submerge their bodies. They mostly feed on water weeds, grabbing them from below the surface.
To navigate lakes and rivers, they use their powerful feet as paddles.
Scientific name (family): Laridae
Seagulls have very long legs in comparison to terns, ending with completely webbed feet.
They’re often associated with bodies of salt water, and with good reason. Gulls mostly inhabit areas near human fisheries as they see people as a predictable food source.
These sea birds with webbed feet can often be seen floating on water, where they’re safe from possible predators, but also keep an eye on the fish below.
Although they can’t dive hundreds of feet like some diving birds, seagulls are known to grab fish from just below the surface.
Scientific name (genus): Recurvirostra
These birds are natural swimmers with fully webbed feet. They spend their entire lives in saline wetlands, feeding on aquatic insects and small aquatic animals.
Taking the American avocet as a representative, these birds forage for food both in the water and on the shore.
Although webbed feet make some aquatic birds clumsy on land, avocets have long legs for their size. This way, they compensate for their webbed feet and don’t have a problem walking.
When swimming, these birds with webbed feet in the USA will submerge the head and the neck to catch a small fish or another animal.
Scientific name (family): Phoenicopteridae
Just like all previous species on the list, flamingos have fully webbed feet. However, they’re the species that utilize them the least.
Flamingos don’t venture into deep water often – they’re most often seen standing in the shallows.
Although they can swim, flamingos usually fly to escape predators. When it comes to feeding, flamingos forage in the shallows, not in deep water.
However, just because they don’t use them for swimming doesn’t mean they don’t use their webbed feet at all.
When looking for food, flamingos will stomp the bottom of the stream with their feet and stir up food – their wide feet are very useful in this regard.
Scientific name (genus): Gavia
Loons have duck-like characteristics – they’re excellent swimmers and are very mobile on water because of their fully-webbed feet.
However, they’re very clumsy on the ground because their feet are so far to the back of the body.
To minimize this problem, loons only come out to land to mate and nest, aside from that, they spend their entire lives on the water.
They’re heavy for their size, so they have trouble taking off when they need to escape predators.
They can often be seen waving their wings on the surface of the water and running at the same time.
Scientific name (family): Spheniscidae
Out of all birds, penguins are the most well-adapted for aquatic life. Not only have their wings evolved into flippers, but their feet are also fully webbed.
It is presumed that their feet have developed the webbing first, while the wings later turned into flippers.
From the oldest penguin fossils, it’s clear that they were similar to loons, but they were completely flightless as their wings shortened.
Since they couldn’t yet rely on their wings for swimming, penguins couldn’t dive that much.
Aside from swimming, modern penguins use their feet to propel and steer while they slide on their bellies. This form of behavior is called tobogganing.
Scientific name (subfamily): Sterninae
Terns are a bit odd in comparison to other aquatic birds with webbed feet. Their feet are fully webbed, just like seagull feet, but they rarely swim.
They’re known for floating on water and diving to grab fish, but they’re not often seen swimming.
If terns are seen spending time in the water – it’s for one of three things: bathing, hunting, or avoiding land predators. Unlike most birds with webbed feet, terns are good runners despite their short legs.
Scientific name (genus): Pelecanus
Unlike palmate birds, which have only the front three digits on their feet connected with webbing, pelicans have all four digits webbed.
Their fourth digit isn’t turned backward, though, which is seen with ducks, gulls, and other previously mentioned birds. Instead, it is turned to the side.
This type of webbing is called totipalmate webbing. Pelican’s legs are short and powerful, while their feet are very large for a bird, making them very good swimmers.
They also have air pockets beneath the skin, aiding in floating.
Scientific name (family): Phalacrocoracidae
Cormorants also have totipalmate foot webbing, which they often use for diving.
These black birds with webbed feet propel themselves with their feet to move under the water, although using wings isn’t out of the question either.
Some cormorants are so good at this that they can reach the sea bed.
Scientific name (family): Ardeidae
Herons have semipalmated foot webbing – there’s only a small amount of webbing between the two toes. Other semipalmated bird species have four toes.
Herons are actually not aquatic birds, despite their webbed feet. They don’t normally swim (although they probably could if they got stuck in water) and only occupy the shallows of water bodies.
They search the wetlands for small aquatic prey, including fish, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. When they hunt, they stand in the shallows motionlessly, waiting for prey to pass by.
Scientific name (family): Podicipedidae
Grebes have some of the most unique foot webbing out of all birds.
Lobate webbing includes the three front toes which are edged with webbing. The webbing doesn’t actually connect one toe with another – it only spreads the area covered by the skin of the toes.
When grebes swim, the webbing expands, creating a paddle very similar to that of fully-webbed birds. While they’re not the only bird species with this type of webbing, grebes have the most webbing out of all lobate birds.
Similar to many webbed birds, grebes are clumsy on land.
Scientific name (family): Heliornithidae
Finfoots also have lobate webbing, but unlike grebes, they’re very quick on land. These birds live secretive lives, so they spend the majority of their lives behind cover, be it on land or in water.
They’re great swimmers, often found in swamps, slow-moving rivers, and streams, as well as lakes. There, they feed on fish, amphibians, mollusks, and insects.
Birds with webbed feet made that adaptation to improve their swimming abilities. Some of these birds, such as penguins, ducks, and gulls, spend their entire lives around water and they couldn’t survive without swimming abilities.
Moving out in the water is also a very effective way of escaping predators, which is a strategy many birds employ. Because webbed feet are so large, many birds with webbed feet are very clumsy on land.