Sharpbills are small, sturdy, quiet birds 6 to 7 inches (15 to 18 centimeters) in length that live in scattered areas of South America. Sharpbills have olive green backs, black wings, and black tails. Their undersides are ivory with distinctive dark tear-shaped spots on the upper part of the breast. In the center of the head is a bright orange or red crest that is normally hidden, but is raised when the bird is excited. Males and females look similar, although the colors of the female may be duller. Some ornithologists, scientists that study birds, separate this species into five different groups based on their geographic location and small differences in color and size. However, these differences are minor.
Sharpbills get their name from the distinctive shape of their gray bill, which is sharply pointed. The bill is surrounded by rictal (RIK-tuhl) bristles, stiff stripped-down feathers consisting mainly of the feather shaft. Originally it was thought that rictal bristles helped the birds catch insects while flying, but experimental evidence disproved this theory. Ornithologists (scientists who study birds) now think the bristles may help to keep insects out of the birds' eyes as they fly.
Ornithologists have not decided exactly where sharpbills belong in the classification of bird families. Sharpbills were first scientifically described in 1820 and were put in their own family, which contains only this species. Since then, they have been reclassified by some ornithologists as contingas or as tyrant flycatchers. Genetic research started in the 1980s seemed to suggest that they could be part of the tyrant flycatcher family, but as recently as 2002, there was no firm conclusion about how they should be classified.