Birds fascinate us with their natural beauty, remarkable abilities, and often downright strange behavior. One case in point is the habit that many birds have of bobbing their heads as they walk, perch, or observe the world around them. This strange and amusing behavior has some surprising functions.
Most birds have amazing eyesight, thanks in part to the relatively large size of their eyes. Having such huge eyes come at a cost, however.
Birds can’t move their eyes quite like we can, so they need to move their heads to compensate. These head movements are most obvious when birds are in motion because this is when birds need to stabilize their vision so that their surroundings are not blurred.
Most of the bobbing head movements we see in birds are related to vision, but birds also use head movements in other everyday activities. Read on to learn more about why birds bob their heads, some of the answers are probably not what you were expecting!
Close up of a Sandhill Cranes head
Birds often move their heads in exaggerated and unusual ways. If you’ve ever watched a pigeon walking through a park, you would have probably noticed the funny way these birds bob their heads backward and forward.
This amusing gait almost seems to happen automatically and uncontrollably in pigeons, but other birds also bob their heads for varying reasons.
The primary reason for birds bobbing their heads is to maintain clear vision. This is important for many reasons, including avoiding predators, finding food, and interacting with other members of their species. Many birds also use their heads to perform exaggerated movements to communicate with other birds.
Continue reading to learn some of the main functions of head bobbing in birds.
Pigeons have one of the most noticeable head bobbing
Birds have very limited ability to move their eyes, so they rely on head movements to stabilize their vision. Many ground birds, and other species that walk rather than hop, show this behavior as they walk along, bobbing their heads back and forth.
Birds that are perched on an unstable object appear to be keeping their heads still in relation to the ground. In reality, the bird is moving its head to correct for the uncontrollable movements of its body. Similar movements are also used in flight, and birds like hummingbirds and hawks that hover in one place are masters of this vision stabilizing technique.
Birds of prey like hawks, eagles, and owls often bob their heads to detect their prey. Researchers studying three different American hawk species found that each made different head movements that best suited their hunting techniques and the habitats where they hunt.
Cooper’s hawks, for example, which hunt in really dense and cluttered habitats make much more frequent head movements than red-tailed hawks which hunt in far more open habitats.
Cooper's Hawks have to move their heads more because of the habitats they hunt in
For some birds, head bobbing has nothing to do with vision, and everything to do with mating. Mallard ducks are a great example of a bird that uses head bobbing during courtship. Both male and female mallards bob their heads up and down, often just before mating.
Northern flickers also use head bobbing for communication. In their case, however, the behavior is usually agonistic in nature, rather than romantic. Both sexes may bob their heads, but this behavior is frequently seen in males squaring off for the attention of a female.
With the exception of raptors with sharp bills, most birds need to swallow their food whole, especially if the meal is too tough to peck into smaller pieces. Predatory birds like herons, cormorants, seagulls, and owls often need to bob their heads vigorously to swallow large meals.
Great Blue Heron swallowing a fish
Birds often bob their heads when looking at people, and it can seem almost like they are intimidating us or trying to deliver some unspoken message.
Birds bob their heads at us just to look us over. They do this to determine whether we are a threat, and perhaps even out of curiosity. By bobbing their heads, birds are able to get a picture of their surroundings from slightly different angles and distances, helping them to get a better idea of what they are looking at.
Pigeons and doves (Columbidae family) are probably the best-known ‘head-bobbers’, but many birds perform these amusing movements. You’re unlikely to see a hopping bird like a sparrow bob its head but the following birds can all be seen bobbing their heads while walking:
Starlings walking along the ground
Many theories have been put forward to explain why birds bob their heads while walking. Experiments with running tinamous and pigeons on treadmills have shown that it is not an automatic muscular movement that happens as they run and that the movement of the head is not synchronized with the birds' leg movements.
You may also be surprised to learn that birds only bob their heads forward while walking, the backward movement is an optical illusion!
Birds are thought to bob their heads while walking to stabilize their vision. This is very important for detecting predators, judging distances, and generally analyzing the world around them. These movements can be broken down into two phases, the ‘hold’ phase where the bird keeps its head stationary in relation to the ground, and the ‘thrust’ phase where the bird moves its head forward rapidly to catch up with its body.
During the hold phase, the bird's eyes are kept still for long enough to form a clear image of their surroundings without blurring and this is very helpful for detecting any movements which could be a threat.
The rapid forward movement of the head in the thrust phase allows the head to catch up and move out in front of the bird's body for the next hold. The thrust phase is also believed to serve an important function in improving the bird's depth perception.
Close up of a Elegant Crested Tinamou (Eudromia elegans)
There is another very interesting reason why some birds bob their heads. Many people who keep birds like parrots, cockatoos, and budgerigars will confirm that these popular pets love to bob their heads.
One common explanation for this behavior is to attract attention, but studies have shown that some birds from this family actually have rhythm.
Harvard University researchers found that specimens of at least two bird species moved in time with the beats of music. The two species were none other than the intelligent and long-lived African grey parrot and the sulphur-crested cockatoo.
These two species share a remarkable ability to mimic sounds and this is believed to be important for their ability to ‘dance’. Movements synchronized with sounds have not yet been seen in any wild birds, however.
African Grey Parrot perched on a branch
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