Birds may be masters of the air, but they are no slouches on their feet. For many species, walking and swimming are their most important means of getting around, and some have even lost the power of flight altogether in favor of these modes of locomotion.
Birds have several different gaits and swimming styles. Some paddle and dive, while others hop, walk, or even run as fast as a galloping horse. These abilities are driven by factors like their diet, predators, and the habitats where they live.
In this guide, we’ll learn all about how birds get around when they’re not flying and delve into some of the roles of terrestrial locomotion for bird behavior. Join us as we unpack this fascinating and vitally important side of avian behavior and physiology.
Most birds can walk, although their ability varies greatly across families and species. Walking is most developed in ground birds, some of which have evolved to be flightless and rely entirely on their hindlimbs for locomotion.
The leg anatomy of ground birds is well-developed for walking, although there are some major differences between how birds and humans walk. Our upper legs are relatively mobile, with significant articulation at the pelvis, while birds show more movement at the knee and ankle.
Ground birds also show significant foot and toe adaptations. Many species have reduced or even absent hind toes (hallux) because they don’t need an opposable digit for gripping branches. Ostriches have almost hoof-like feet with just two toes.
Bipedal walking requires balance and timing. It is characterized by the alternate forward movement of each leg, with the feet remaining in contact with the ground longer than in a full run. Posture varies from Penguins, with a fully upright stance, to ground birds like Quails, with a more horizontal posture.
Gaits also vary between species. Birds like the European Starling walk with a pronounced side-to-side sway, while groundbirds progress with more stability. Stride length varies depending on leg length, so birds with short legs must move their legs a lot faster to progress at the same speed. However, the advantage of shorter legs is greater maneuverability, especially in cluttered habitats.
Walking is most important for birds that forage on the ground, especially where the substrate is fairly even. It is most prevalent in birds of open habitats, although there are species that walk through dense habitats like reedbeds or forage on the forest floor. Many food sources are available on the ground, including seeds, fallen fruits, insects, and larger prey.
While slower than flight, walking is more effective for going undetected, as birds can remain hidden and camouflaged against their surroundings. At full speed, some birds can even outrun their predators, so walking is by no means a disadvantage for ground birds.
Birds like the European Starling walk with a pronounced side-to-side sway, while groundbirds progress with more stability
Hopping is a common method of locomotion, especially in small passerines (perching birds), and can be seen while birds move through vegetation or forage on the ground. While some birds can walk and hop, it’s usually a case of one or the other.
Hopping involves the simultaneous movement of both legs powered by leg muscles, although birds will flap their wings to cover longer distances. Hopping birds tend to be relatively small and short-legged, with wide, robust pelvises.
Hopping is an important energy-saving adaptation for small birds because they can travel significantly further in a single hop than with a regular step. It allows a rapid, short-distance movement, which can make all the difference in catching fast-moving prey or even evading slow-moving predators.
Hopping is also a more practical way of moving across uneven terrain, so it’s no surprise that this behavior is most common in small arboreal birds that hop between branches. These birds may hop forward from branch to branch or even hop sideways to move along a branch.
A Blue Fairy Wren. Hopping is an important energy-saving adaptation for small birds because they can travel significantly further in a single hop than with a regular step
Birds have evolved several ways of moving on and through water. Some birds, like Penguins, Murres, and Puffins, propel themselves through the water using their wings as flippers. Kingfishers and Gannets dive into the water from above, and dippers walk or swim along the bottom of flowing streams.
Most aquatic birds use their legs and webbed feet for paddling along the water’s surface or swimming down below. These birds may dive rapidly in pursuit of fish (e.g., Cormorants), upend while feeding on aquatic plants (e.g., Ducks), or even spin in circles like the intriguing Wilsons’s Phalarope.
Swimming birds have several adaptations to improve their mobility in the water. Most of these birds have characteristic webbing between their toes, with either palmate or totipalmate feet. Some, like Grebes and Coots, have unique lobed feet with wide, paddle-like toes.
Specialized diving birds also have relatively short legs, but ‘amphibious’ species like Geese and Gulls that spend much of their time on land have longer legs. Some swimming birds even have flattened claws that increase the surface area of their feet.
Diving birds like Cormorants that pursue fast-moving prey have especially well-streamlined bodies. These birds are less buoyant than surface foraging species, increasing their speed and agility underwater.
Most marine birds are predators of fish, krill, squid, and other mobile creatures. Many freshwater birds are equally carnivorous, hunting fish, frogs, and invertebrates. These birds often rely on speed and agility to capture moving prey.
Even predators can be prey, and many waterbirds are vulnerable to predators from both above and below the water’s surface. One of the great advantages of their amphibious lifestyle is that waterbirds can often escape into the air, onto dry land, or dive below the surface to evade predators.
A Northern Gannet diving in to the sea to catch fish
From strutting Grouse to dancing Blue-footed Boobies, many birds use fancy footwork for displaying and attracting a partner. However, birds also use their hind limbs to keep other birds away.
Territorial species will chase intruders, either in the water or on land, and when push comes to shove, some species will fight with their legs.
Most birds rely on non-flight locomotion for collecting materials, finding food, and almost every part of nest building and chick rearing. Walking and swimming can be just as important for the chicks, and most species learn to stand, walk, or climb before they master flight.
Precocial chicks don’t have much time to find their feet and typically leave the nest within a few days of hatching to follow their parents around in search of food. Some Ducklings and Goslings must walk surprising distances to reach the relative safety of the nearest water.
While some mammals are known to migrate on foot, birds typically rely on flight to travel between breeding to overwintering grounds. However, some birds can cover great distances by walking, running, and swimming. Ostriches, for example, are nomadic in nature and may move a long way to find food and water during dry seasons.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Penguins, which are not well suited to walking, may cover impressive distances to reach inland nesting grounds. The Emperor Penguin is known to march over 50 miles across the snow to reach its winter nesting grounds.
Of course, flying birds also use modes of non-flying locomotion during migration. Most species will land to forage, and depending on their species, they may walk, hop, or swim when refueling and staging.
Female Mallard with ducklings. Precocial chicks don’t have much time to find their feet and typically leave the nest within a few days of hatching to follow their parents around in search of food
More than just masters of the skies, many birds have evolved to be the amphibious, all-terrain vehicles of the animal world.
Avians all over the world rely on their hindlimbs for many modes of locomotion, whether hopping through the canopy, sprinting across an open plain, or diving to the bottom of a lake.
These abilities are vital for their survival, and each species has evolved its own locomotive abilities to suit its needs. Take a closer look next time you see a bird hopping around in the yard or swimming on a pond—our feathered friends really know how to move!
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