You’ve probably heard the words talon and claw used interchangeably when it comes to birds. When you think of the two types of bird features, you might struggle to tease out a distinction. Is there a difference at all?
It can be a little confusing, but it’s a classic square and rectangle situation. A square is always considered a rectangle, but a rectangle is not always square. The same is true for claws and talons.
A claw is a curved, pointed nail on the digits of an animal—a definition that can be broadly applied. A talon is a sharp, hooked claw of a bird of prey. That means all talons are claws, but not all claws are talons.
So, to answer Napoleon Dynamite’s question from this awkward movie scene—no, the chickens don’t have large talons. Since chickens are not considered birds of prey, they have claws.
What do Birds Use Claws and Talons for?
Talons are vital to the livelihood of many larger birds. Without them, birds of prey wouldn’t be able to hunt and catch their food. Talons tend to be quite powerful; some birds of prey use them to literally crush their victims and carry them away.
Birds primarily use claws for digging, climbing, and perching. Robins will scrape up dirt and grass to reveal worms to pluck with their beaks. The hoatzin uniquely has claws on its wings as a chick, used to climb trees until its plumage fully develops for flight. Passerines, which include half of all birds, use their claws to perch.
The Dangers of Claws
While claws may seem less threatening than talons, don’t be fooled into thinking they’re not dangerous. Claws are a versatile tool that many birds use for defense. Cassowaries, for example, are a large bird (almost 5 feet tall) referred to as “the world’s most dangerous bird.” They have claws on their inner toes for defense and have even been known to disembowel people when they feel threatened. During World War II, American and Australian troops stationed in New Guinea were warned to stay away from them.
Largest Claws VS Largest Talons
The largest claws in the animal kingdom belong to the giant armadillo. They measure nearly 8 inches long! These lumbering armored mammals use their claws to dig up prey, and to occasionally fend off formidable jaguars.
The harpy eagle isn’t quite the largest bird of prey in the world, but it does have the largest talons. In fact, the harpy’s talons are about the same size as a grizzly bear’s claws. These powerful talons allow the harpy eagle to prey on large South American animals like monkeys, squirrels, opossums, anteaters and armadillos.
What are Talons and Claws Made of?
Claws and talons are both made of the same material your own fingernails are made from: a hard protein called keratin. Feathers of birds are also made of keratin, though a softer type due to a differing levels of sulfur. Luckily, the hard keratin in claws and talons is tough enough to allow birds to efficiently hunt, dig, climb and protect themselves.
There’s Not Much Difference Between Claws and Talons
The truth is, we’re splitting feathers as we label birds with claws versus talons. The difference is largely pedantic, considering the distinction is only a matter of which bird the appendage is attached to. Still, it’s important for birders to understand the difference to speak intelligently about wild birds.