Skip to main content

Why do birds bob their heads? The answer is pretty complex

Birds bob their heads for a very interesting reason. Here's what to know

Birds are some of the most popular pets for many reasons: They’re funny, smart, and pretty. But they also intrigue us because they do a few cool things that us mammals don’t. One well-known trait is the iconic head bob, which might make you instantly reach for your camera every time you see it. It’s certainly worth watching, but what does it mean? There’s actually a very scientific — albeit somewhat complex — reason behind this.

So, why do birds bob their heads? Basically, they do this to see better, but it’s a little more complicated than that. 

Pigeon walks down the street while bobbing its head
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What does head bobbing mean in birds?

It’s not something we notice consciously, but it’s actually difficult to see the world around us while we’re moving, whether that’s swimming, flying, or walking. Different animals have developed different ways to compensate for this. Think about it like the camera you might use to capture your birdie at its cutest. It takes a second for the lens to focus, right? The same thing happens with our eyes as we shift, either by moving our bodies or our heads.

In humans, we switch our lenses a teeny tiny bit to compensate, which allows us to maintain focus. Birds, on the other hand, with their super-long necks, have evolved a unique method for observing the world around them. 

Bird perches on his owner's finger
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Why do birds bob their head up and down?

Instead of adjusting their eyes as people do, birds instead move their heads to see better. That’s right: the awkward head jerk is just a method of getting a better look at the world around them. There have been numerous experiments to understand this better (and you can watch one of them in action here). Avians jut their eyes forward to focus on what’s in front and then let the rest of the body catch up. They frequently do this move while walking or while trying to pay close attention to something.

If you filmed your pet and watched it in slow motion, you would see he isn’t really moving his head up and down either. The motion should mostly stick with a sharp push forward that might look like a nod to the naked eye at normal speed.

Bird perches on a window feeder
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Do all birds bob their heads?

Actually, no. Most likely, it all comes down to stride length. The thinking goes that birds with shorter strides, and even shorter necks, don’t have much need for the head bob, since they aren’t traveling a far enough distance each step. In fact, many songbirds and others you spot out there will never do a head toss, at least not as we think of traditionally. That said, lots of our pets, like parrots, finches, pigeons, and chickens, will shake their heads as they move — and look adorable while doing it.

Two parrots tilt their heads to see better
Philippe Oursel / Unsplash

What else can head bobbing mean?

While it’s usually simply for a better view, a bobbing head is occasionally a sign of aggression. Geese in particular are prone to shaking their heads right before they attack. When you see this in a pet and it’s clearly negative, back up and give the little guy space. You also might spot some instances of birds incorporating head bobbing into their mating rituals.

Watch a few nature shows and you’ll notice male birds dance with their heads very proficiently, in part to show off their pretty feathers. While both of these explanations will certainly hold true sometimes, they’re less common than birds doing it simply to adjust their vision. Next time you see your little pet bird (or one on the street) bob their head, you’ll know what it’s really about.

In addition to the nod, you will also sometimes witness a bird tilt his head. This move helps him see the ground or something on it, usually food. Remember that birds don’t have eyes in front of their heads and instead have to move their skulls, not just their eyes, to see things we would spot right in front of our noses. On the flip side, with a slight tilt or turn, they can observe the world in almost 360 degrees, which comes in handy when trying to spot predators. And hey, if nothing else, it also makes a cool dance move!

Editors' Recommendations

Rebekkah Adams
Rebekkah’s been a writer and editor for more than 10 years, both in print and digital. In addition to writing about pets…
Certain colors may scare your bird – these are the ones to avoid
Here are the right and wrong colors for your pet bird's mood
Scared parrot squawks

Have you noticed that your bird responds differently to different colors and might even be startled by certain shades? Birds across the globe come in all colors — it’s one of the delights of birdwatching. In the home, parakeets, parrots, and canaries are well known for their beautiful plumage, another appealing aspect of owning these pets. But nature has given our feathered friends an instinct to perceive particular bright colors as a threat and thus avoid them. With careful observation and a little planning, you can avoid upsetting your bird with specific hues.

Why are birds attracted to certain colors?
There are probably a few reasons birds seem attracted to certain colors. Many birds eat fruit and the nectar of flowers and are therefore inclined to the colors associated with them. That’s why hummingbirds and others go for the bright, beautiful flowers in our yards (or the feeders designed to mimic them). In addition, pretty feathers aren’t just attractive to you but are also intended to help birds procure mates. On the other hand, birds in the wild might display color patches as a warning, which may lead fellow birds to fear some colors.
What colors are birds afraid of?
Many bird owners swear that their bird is afraid of red, and there’s probably some truth to that. Just as we take red to mean caution, so too, do some birds, who may view it with trepidation. If your bird finds red scary, try to minimize its presence around your birdcage or play area. 

Read more
Why do birds fly into windows? The truth is kind of sad
There's a lot you can do to keep neighborhood birds from flying into windows
Bird takes flight off a branch in slow motion

Watching birds from the windows is one of the many perks of living near wildlife: we can stay warm and gaze out on the flocks that frequent our feeders. But sadly, these windows that allow us to view the outdoors can harm the creatures in it. Animals experience the world differently from us, and they see differently, too. Therefore, it's important to take steps to make your windows visible to birds (and other fauna) in order to help spare them from unnecessary death or injury. But why do birds fly into windows? We'll explain what the problem is and also give you some advice on how to prevent it. With a few simple tricks, you'll still get to enjoy the bird show and keep them from getting hurt. 

Why do birds fly into windows?
Turn off the lights inside and go out during the early morning to look at your windows. You'll likely see a dim version of your own yard reflected back to you. While it only gives you a moment's pause, birds don't understand that a plant can show up in a piece of glass but not really be there. Unfortunately, this means when they fly into your windows, they're actually trying to get into the trees. That's because there's a wide-open sky in the panes of your home welcoming the avians of your area.

Read more
Determined to raise backyard chickens? 6 essential things to do before you set up your coop
Three chickens eat while outside in their backyard

Urban chicken coops are trendy and rightfully so. With a group of hens you get fun pets plus eggs — how often does the family dog contribute after all? But you can't dive in on every Instagram trend, and this one, in particular, requires a pretty big upfront commitment mixed with a reasonable amount of upkeep, especially for beginners who have never owned so much as a parakeet. Just because it seems like a lot to handle, that doesn't mean you aren't cut out for poultry farming; many find it fun and rewarding. Before jumping into backyard chickens, think through these six things and determine if a flock of birds is really the right fit for you.

Look up local laws
Even if you see chickens roaming nearby, you'll want to thoroughly check up on the laws of your area, as well as any HOA regulations. You'd be surprised how many very specific rules might apply to setting up your little farm. Think about the coop itself, the rules for owning fowl, and the noise ordinances. Specifically, if you intend to have a rooster heading up your group as they can crow at decibels you wouldn't imagine and at hours you don't usually see.
Find your perfect spot
Next, scope out your yard and start planning. You need a large space for the coop itself (more on that in a minute) but that's not the whole picture. Since you started with a relatively small space to begin with (remember chickens often roam over many acres in a more rural habitat), you want both an indoor structure and an outdoor run. Altogether, you might need a sizable portion of the yard to accommodate them. If you plan to add other birds like ducks, you must calculate too where the pool will go and how they will access it.
Design your urban chicken coop
There are probably a few laws governing how big this can be, and you might need to apply for a permit, so you'll spend a decent amount of time in the design phase. Decide if you want to buy something pre-made or build a structure that perfectly fits into your yard. Either way, you should allocate about three square feet per chicken, so your building will get big quick, even if you want to start small. And that's just indoors. They need to be able to come out sometimes but still stay safely nearby.
Research breeds
Think all chickens are the same? Think again. Get ready to narrow it down from the 500 chicken breeds out there. The local climate will slim that as well as the available space, but you still have a bit of your own studying to do. And it's not just breed, you can impact what types of eggs you get based on what chicks you get (along with the food and environment).

Read more