For almost every family of bird, there is a distinctive bill shape. Bills vary in size, color, and function. In this post, I introduce some of the features of the bill that are most important in drawing or painting birds.

The Mandibles

A bird’s bill are composed of an upper mandible (also called the maxilla) and a lower mandible (sometimes just referred to as mandible).

Image: Wikimedia Commons

When depicting a bird with its mouth open, it’s important to remember that the lower mandible hinges at a point below and slightly posterior to the eye socket. This hinge positions the mandible in a more or less straight line from the hinge as seen in this Barn Owl skull (above).

Pro Tip: One of the most common mistakes artists make when drawing a bird with its bill open is to position the hinge too far forward which misaligns the jaw relative to the rest of head.

Related: Avian Anatomy for Artists: The Skull

The Gape

While it’s true that birds don’t have lips, they do have a fleshy area between the mandibles called the gap. The color and prominence of the gape is one indication of a bird’s age—juveniles often have conspicuous, brightly colored gapes that are thought to provide some sort of signal to parents about the health of the chick. In this drawing of a juvenile European Robin, for example, the gape is very prominent and easy to see.

European Robin (Juvenile) © 2020

When drawing or painting any bird, pay special attention to the gape area. On adult birds, this region may be subtle or concealed by feathers. Careful treatment of this area with shading or line work will distinguish your skill and make your bird appear more realistic.


The nostrils are visible on most birds but in some cases such as Ravens and birds that live in snowy environments, they may be concealed beneath a sheath of feathers called narials. Pay special attention to the values in the nares to give the cavity depth.

Rictal Bristles

Image: Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite details on a bird’s bill are the rictal bristles which are slender, hair-like feathers that sometimes surround the bill. Flycatchers, like the Social Flycatcher shown above, have prominent rictal bristles but these structures are also found on other species and can provide an opportunity for subtle but expressive mark-making that will add expression to your drawing.

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