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Birds Missing Tails

Dear Bird Folks,

Please take a look at the Mourning Dove in this photo. Notice that it doesn’t have a tail. Any idea what happened? Without its tail the dove looks a little strange, like a feathered ocarina. Can the bird survive like that?

– Paula, Sandwich, MA


A feathered ocar-what, Paula?

I’m not real familiar with ocarinas. Should I be? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind doing a little research; it’s what I do. But I don’t want to have to research the words in your question, too. Try to remember that I only know about birds. Wait! Is the ocarina that dance craze from the mid-90s? No, I think that was the Macarena. I had better look it up. Oh, I know that thing. It looks like a sweet potato with holes. And, it makes a sound if we blow into it, right? Yes, your tail-less dove does look like an ocarina…but without the holes. Also, don’t blow into it. Doves – you never know where they’ve been.

This summer I too had a tail-less bird coming to my feeder. It was a Song Sparrow that I called “Stubby.” (Clever, eh?) Since all Song Sparrows tend to look the same, it was actually kind of fun having one that stood out from the rest. Every day I’d look out the window and say good morning to Stubby. Then one day Stubby stopped coming to my feeder. Had something bad happened to it? Probably not. I suspect Stubby was still around, but I couldn’t tell it from the others anymore because its tail had grown back. Either that or the bird moved to another yard because it got tired of being called Stubby. (At least I didn’t say it looked like an ocarina.)

There are several reasons why birds lose their tails. In the case of Stubby, it was probably the result of its annual molt. Birds replace all of their feathers at least once a year and occasionally some feathers are slow to re-grow. Birds may also lose their tail feathers while trying to avoid being captured. Tail feathers actually come out fairly easily, often leaving the would-be predator with a mouthful of feathers.

Will the tail grow back? Yes, and fairly quickly, too. Depending on the health of the bird, it may take only a few weeks for its tail feathers to regenerate. Fortunately for your dove, fall is a good season for birds. They’ve had time to recover from the breeding season, the weather is still decent and there is plenty of natural food available, so re-growing a few feathers shouldn’t be a problem. I should point out that rapid re-growth only happens when a feather has been pulled out; it’s a different story if the feather is broken or damaged. If a broken feather doesn’t fall out, the bird will have to wait until the next molting period before the bad feather is replaced. There’s always a catch.

Can birds survive without a tail? They certainly can. Tails are important, but not critical. Tail-less birds can still fly, avoid danger and feed themselves. They’ll just have a slight disadvantage for a while. Think about it this way. If you lost your shoes, you could still walk, go to work and prepare your food. It might be inconvenient, but you’d survive. The only thing you couldn’t do without shoes is eat in certain restaurants. You know, those snobby “no shoes, no service” places. Talk about uptight.

I don’t mean to imply that birds’ tails are superfluous. They perform a variety of important functions. For example, birds use their tails when landing. By spreading their tails (and wings) birds are basically deploying their own natural “air brakes,” which helps to slow them down. They also use their tails as rudders. Some hawks (Cooper’s) have extra-long tails, which allows them to outmaneuver prey. Soaring birds spread their tails (and, again, wings) in order to ride on thermals of warm air. Tails provide extra balance for cardinals and other perching birds. Birds even use their tails as a form of nonverbal communication. Juncos and towhees flash white tail feathers when they want to tell a rival to stay away. House Wrens spread their tails when they’re upset…and they’re always upset.

Conversely, tails aren’t always used to signal hostility. Sometimes they’re important for romance. We’ve all seen how big a tom turkey can make his tail when he’s looking for love. The male Wilson’s Snipe uses the outer edges of his tail to produce a winnowing sound during spring courtship. Then there’s the crazy, over-the-top tail of the peacock. While such a massive tail might be a hindrance in flight, it’s perfect for attracting the females…and tourists with cameras.

Woodpeckers have a more practical use for their tails. When a woodpecker wants to hack into a tree, it pulls back and strikes forward. The bird is able to lean back because its tail provides support, like a kickstand. Without strong tail feathers, the woodpecker might flip over backwards, which would be a problem for the bird, but funny for the rest of us.

Your dove (aka, ocarina) most likely lost its tail to a predator, Paula. But not to worry. It will be able to get along just fine until a brand-new tail grows back, and that should only take a few weeks. Speaking of a few weeks, that’s how long it’s going to take me to get that awful Macarena song out of my head. Why did I ever bring it up?