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Question:

    Why do pigeons bob their heads when they walk?

Answer:    

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

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.

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.

Standard DisclaimerRelated Web Sites
  • Animal Diversity: Family Columbidae (pigeons and doves) - Animal Diversity Web is an online database of animal natural history, distribution, classification, and conservation biology at the University of Michigan.” Information about the pigeon and dove family is presented.
  • Avian Visual Cognition - A cyberbook edited by Robert C. Cook about visual cognition in birds.
  • PigeonWatch: An International Study of Feral Pigeon Colors - "PigeonWatch participants observe pigeons and send their data to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology …” Instructions and data forms, videos, pigeon color morphs, pigeon courtship behavior, and cool pigeon facts are some of the information presented on this Web site.
  • Biomotion Lab: The Functional Significance of Head-Bobbing in Birds - The Biomotion Lab, directed by Dr. Nikolaus Troje and in collaboration with Dr. Barrie Frost, researches visual perception and cognition. A brief summary on head bobbing in birds is presented.
  • Visual and Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory - Dr. Barrie Frost directs this laboratory, which studies “brain mechanisms for processing visual and auditory information” in animals. You can find information about his research and a bibliography of his publications through the Lab’s Web site.

Library of Congress Web SiteFurther Reading
  • Friedman, Mark. Visual control of head movements during avian locomotion. Nature, v. 255, May 1, 1975: 67-69.
  • Frost, B. J. The optokinetic basis of head-bobbing in the pigeon. Journal of experimental biology, v. 74, June 1, 1978: 187-195.
    http://jeb.biologists.org/cgi/reprint/74/1/187
  • Jackson, John. Pigeons. Danbury, CT, Grolier, c2004. 48 p. (Juvenile literature)
  • Physiology and behaviour of the pigeon. Edited by Michael Abs. London, New York, Academic Press, c1983. 360 p.
  • Rodieck, R.W. The first steps in seeing. Sunderland, MA, Sinauer Associates, c1998. 562 p. .
  • Troje, Nikolaus F. and Barrie F. Frost. Head-bobbing in pigeons: how stable is the hold phase? Journal of experimental biology, v. 203, March 1, 2000: 935-940.
    http://jeb.biologists.org/cgi/reprint/203/5/935
  • Vision, brain, and behavior in birds. Edited by H. Philip Zeigler and Hans-Joachim Bischof. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, c1993. 415 p.

SearchFor more print resources...
Search on "birds -- behavior," "birds -- physiology," "columbidae," "pigeons," or "visual pathways" in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.


Domestic pigeon. Photo: The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Bavarian pigeon fleet with tiny cameras. From the online Remote Sensing Tutorial (NASA)

Color illustration of a passenger pigeon, with oack leaves in the background.
"The Pigeon of Passage." From the Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library


Extinct passenger pigeon. Photo: National Conservation Training Center.


The sun can affect the navigational abilities of homing pigeons during geomagnetic storms. From the National Aeronautics and Space Museum (NASA)

Woman on a park bench feeding pigeons.  One  pigeon purches on her shoulder.
This woman has been feeding the pigeons in Lafayette Park, D.C., almost daily for thirteen years. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Vincent Price and 3 women standing before a fountain, each holding  a pigeon.
Vincent Price and three women holding and feeding pigeons, Italy. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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  October 15, 2010
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