stopping birds bobbing their head
October 14, 2010 7:00 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible to stop birds doing that goofy thing with their heads when they walk?

Some human examples of what I mean by "is it possible":

Not possible: keeping your eyes wide open when sneezing, trying to keep your leg still when the doctor tests your patellar reflex.

Possible: running with your arms held perfectly still to your side, holding your breath much longer than is comfortable.

Could a bird keep its head still when walking if it really wanted to?
posted by uncanny hengeman to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm guessing you're referring mainly to pigeons. Because not all birds bob their heads the way pigeons do. And considering birds do not purposely affect manerisms in their walk, I would say that it is a result of their physical build. So: no, I don't think it would be possible for them.

Considering other birds and just the way they frequently dart their heads around searching for insects and other food- then yes, they could stop that, but it is an instinctive movement to be on the constant look-out for food.
posted by Eicats at 7:07 AM on October 14, 2010


I always assumed they did it to maintain balance, though The Straight Dope seems to have cleared that up. It's a vision thing. So I suppose if you could convince a pigeon he didn't need to see a stable image, you could get him to stop bobbing his head.

Because this is Metafilter, I must link to this mention of a study that put pigeons on a treadmill. No word about whether or not they were able to take off.
posted by bondcliff at 7:08 AM on October 14, 2010


If i'm parsing this correctly, you're essentially asking if the head bobbing is a voluntary or involuntary motion in all birds. I do not have the specific answer to that, and I'd guess that it will all depend on the bird in question.
Although it is a ground bird, which could influence things, the chicken seems to have a pretty good stabilizing rig. This implies that there is extensive control of head position relative to the body, which might help explain why they do bob their head as they walk.
Rather than continue to speculatively research this exhaustively via youtube chicken videos (and ostrich) I'm just going to go ahead and guess that the head movement is voluntary, however pervasive, as it seems to be tied to their perception of their surroundings and prioperception. They could stop if they wanted to, but why would they want to unless it's to stop you snickering at them?
posted by thusspakeparanoia at 7:59 AM on October 14, 2010


The birds do it because they focus on one point while walking, not for balancing reasons. Each bob happens whenever they focus on a new point. So, as others have said, they do it to see a stable image. It's the same thing a human does when looking out of the window of a moving train or car: their eyes move back and forth because they focus on one point at a time.

I've recently read or heard this explanation somewhere, but can't remember where now. Maybe it was Radiolab? Maybe someone else here knows and can provide the link.
posted by amf at 8:48 AM on October 14, 2010


The problem I have with this question is why did you phrase it as 'is it possible to make them stop' versus 'why do they do it'.

I can imagine rigging up a little pigeon neck brace, but as bondcliff's link points out, then they wouldn't be able to see very well. As for training one to do it, I've seen a lot of intelligent performing parrots, and they can be trained to do movements, but more as a one-off sort of thing, not a continuous thing like walking.
posted by emyd at 8:51 AM on October 14, 2010


Yep, read The Straight Dope link before I posted here, but thanks anyway, bondcliff, appreciated.

If i'm parsing this correctly, you're essentially asking if the head bobbing is a voluntary or involuntary motion

Yes, that's exactly it, thusspakeparanoia.

It seems no matter what speed the bird walks, the head bob happens at the same part of the gait. And I've noticed the head bob "snap" movement is always the same speed, even if the bird is walking very slowly and ponderously.

It looks like a bit of an uncontrollable, hard wired reflex to me. Or maybe the thigh muscles and the neck muscles are both attached to the floating breastbone and it's simple physics? As one muscle pulls the other muscle has to give?
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:52 AM on October 14, 2010


The problem I have with this question is why did you phrase it as 'is it possible to make them stop' versus 'why do they do it'.

Because it irks me and I want them to stop it. Just once, for one measly step. Just for me. And yes, I have thought of a neck brace!

[interesting question, emyd]
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:56 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


This review article (pay link for fulltext, sorry) further confirms that they do it primarily for visual reasons, and there might be a secondary stabilizing function (although it doesn't really cite many sources supporting the secondary stabilizing function).

The review article also mentions some interesting data points:

Pigeons that are blindfolded do not bob their heads when walking.
Pigeons that are on a treadmill do not bob their heads when walking.
Birds that bob their heads don't bob their heads when they're taking really short steps.
posted by kataclysm at 9:05 AM on October 14, 2010


It seems possible that if pigeons were on a rapidly moving vehicle, with nothing to focus on in the foreground, then they wouldn't bob their heads while walking.
posted by IjonTichy at 9:17 AM on October 14, 2010


According to Ask Cecil, pigeons do not bob their heads when focused on something directly in front of them.

So there's your answer: fit them with tiny blinkers.
posted by ErikaB at 10:33 AM on October 14, 2010


Pigeons that are blindfolded do not bob their heads when walking.
Pigeons that are on a treadmill do not bob their heads when walking.
Birds that bob their heads don't bob their heads when they're taking really short steps


Thanks, kataclysm. That looks like my answer. Not the answer I was expecting, BTW. Thanks, too, ErikaB.

I'm guessing you're referring mainly to pigeons.

Just going back to that point, according to my casual observations I would say not only pigeons but all birds that could be grouped as: "birds that spend a lot of time flying and living and nesting in trees, but also spend time on the ground fossicking for food."

Crows, magpies, butcher birds, and even some not-so-good aerialists such as the two or three species of water fowl that live nearby.

But that's probably because their eyes are mounted similarly on their heads and they all do it for the reasons stated above[?].
posted by uncanny hengeman at 12:34 PM on October 14, 2010


Because it irks me and I want them to stop it.

I've tried talking to them about it, asking politely; but they just keep on. Dammit!
posted by Rash at 1:33 PM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't buy the explanation that they're primarily doing it to maintain focus on an object. Pigeons walking down a roof don't do it; they are bobbing their heads when walking forward to shift their center-of-gravity, but when walking downhill, merely lifting one foot starts them falling forward enough to make the step.

Small steps don't require large shifts in COG; ergo they don't bob when making small steps.

Treadmills produce the shift in inertia needed to make the step, so the head-bobbing isn't needed then, either.

So, yes, you can stop them from bobbing their heads. To quote my friend Q, "Oh, that's simple. Just change the Gravitational Constant."
posted by IAmBroom at 5:42 PM on October 14, 2010


« Older Sports bar near union station (NYC)   |   2010 Chicago Marathon Data Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.