Skip to main content

Everyday Mysteries

« Back to Everyday Mysteries page

Question Why do pigeons bob their heads when they walk?

Answer

Most evidence suggests that the head bobbing serves a visual function.

Rock Pigeon. Introduced to North America from Europe in the early 1600s, city pigeons nest on buildings and window ledges. In the countryside they also nest on barns and grain towers, under bridges, and on natural cliffs. Lee Karney, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2013. USFWS National Digital Library.

Chickens bob their heads while walking. So do cranes, magpies and quails. In fact, head bobbing is a unique feature in birds and occurs in at least 8 of the 27 families of birds.

There are a few theories why some birds bob their heads when they walk:

  1. Assists with balance
  2. Provides depth perception
  3. Sharpens their vision

However, most studies suggest that birds in motion bob their heads to stabilize their visual surroundings. In comparison, we rely more on our eye movements, not our head movements, to catch and hold images while in motion.

Picture a pigeon on a moving treadmill. What do you think would happen as the pigeon walks with the speed of the treadmill and its environment remains relatively the same? Dr. Barrie J Frost (1978) did this experiment and the pigeon’s head did not bob.

Washington, D.C. Feeding the pigeons in Lafayette Park. This woman has been bringing grain to the pigeons almost daily for thirteen years.  Esther Bubley, photographer, 1943. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Dr. Mark Friedman (1975) also conducted a series of experiments to test the head bobbing actions of birds, using doves. His research demonstrated that the head movement is controlled more by visual stimulation than movement of the body.

Scientists continue to research head bobbing in birds. For example, scientists are currently investigating question such as “Why do some birds exhibit head bobbing, while other do not?” For more information on this topic see the related Web sites section.

Feeding Pigeons in St. Mark’s Place, Venice, Italy. Detroit Publishing Company, between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Have a question? Ask a science librarian

 Back to top