Passerine feet. © 2020. Watercolor & colored pencil.

Understanding bird feet is extremely helpful not only in assisting you to depict feet accurately but also to compensate for photo reference when the feet are obscured, in odd positions or contortions, or are out of focus.

In this post, I’ll show you some of the features of passerine feet that are most important for bird artists.

Different Bird Families Have Unique Foot Anatomy

There are many types of bird feet that are defined by the arrangement of the toes, toe shape, and presence/absence of webbing.

Passerine birds have four toes, three facing forward and one facing back. The hind toe, called the hallux, is numbered as I (one). This toe arrangement is referred to as anisodactyl.

How to Study Passerine Feet

Here’s a handy checklist to help you begin your study of Passerine feet.

Foot Position

  • Is the bird perched on a branch or standing on the ground?
  • Which toes are visible?
  • What is the perspective? Am I looking up or down on the bird’s feet?


  • What is the length of toes relative to each other?
  • Can I see all the toes? What parts of the toes are obscured from view?
  • Are the toes bent? Can I see the joints clearly?
  • Are the toes in a natural appearing position or are they contorted in some way?

Toe Nails

  • Are the nails visible?
  • How long are the nails relative to the toes?
  • Can I see the curvature of the nails?

Special features

  • Are the scutes easily seen?
  • Can I see the pads at the ends of the toes?

Related: Avian Anatomy for Artists: The Skull

Want more ideas like this?

I publish Painterly, a monthly newsletter for bird-loving artists who want to learn more about birds and grow their artistic skills.

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