Why birds bob their heads

We’ve all seen them do it.

Head forward...

Head forward…

...head back.

…head back.

But why?

The head bob has two phases: hold and thrust. For the hold phase, the body moves forward as the bird walks, but the head stays still, creating the illusion that the head is moving backward. You need a bird’s long neck to do this properly.

Sunbittern in the hold phase. Photographed at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

Sunbittern in the hold phase.
Photographed at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

In the thrust phase, the head moves forward faster than the body, so the head gets thrust out in front. Let’s see it again:

Hold

Hold!

Thrust

Thrust!

There are two reasons a bird might do this. One: it might help the bird walk. When birds hop, they hunch down, then launch their heads (and the rest of themselves) forward. This isn’t all that different from the head bob, so it could be that the thrust step gives them extra forward motion while walking.

Boat-tailed Grackle in normal posture.

Boat-tailed Grackle in normal posture.

Hunched down, about to spring: the hopping version of the hold phase?

Hunched down, about to spring: the hopping version of the hold phase?

House Sparrow mid-hop: the hopping version of the thrust phase?

House Sparrow mid-hop: the hopping version of the thrust phase? (He’s cold and fluffed up, which is why his neck doesn’t look very stretched out.)

The second possibility: head bobbing lets birds see better. Seeing while moving is tricky – if your eye moves too fast, the image is blurry; and even if the image is sharp, it’s hard to judge the motion of things you see if you’re moving too. This is why birds keep their heads still if you move them. Head bobbing lets the head stay still for a moment (hold), then move quickly (thrust) to the next hold point. If they didn’t head bob, their heads would be moving more or less constantly, which would make vision harder.

So which is it? Why do we head bob?

So which is it? Why do we head bob, already?

In work on Elegant-crested Tinamous, who also head bob, Hancock et al. (2014) found that the head motions weren’t exactly synchronized with the leg movements. This makes it highly unlikely that they’re head bobbing to walk better. However, the head bobbing does affect the mechanics of the walking birds—it shifts around their center of mass, for one.

It turns out that not only is vision the primary reason for head bobbing, but birds actually adjust their walking in order to accomodate their head bobbing and achieve the best vision. So that head bobbing pigeon? He’s doing it to keep an eye on you.

We knew that.

Yep.

Reference: Hancock JA, Stevens NJ, Biknevicius AR. 2014. Elegant-crested Tinamous Eudromia elegans do not synchronize head and leg movements during head-bobbing. Ibis 156:193-208.

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9 thoughts on “Why birds bob their heads

  1. So what looks like bobbing is really a variation on holding the head still, as in your related post, “Why birds hold their heads still …” Nice to get such a good view of the pigeon feet in action!

  2. I knew from my parrots about bobbing rapidly to get multiple quick glimpses of something (or to regurg on my lap) – but had always assumed wild birds bob for balance. Really interesting post!

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