Bird Watcher's General Store

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Why Pigeons Bob

Dear Bird Folks,

I hope this question isn’t too weird for you, but I’d like to know why pigeons bob their heads back and forth when they walk.

– Brian, Barnstable


No Offense Brian,

But compared to all of the weird questions that we have to answer every day, your question doesn’t even make the weird chart. In fact, it’s one of the best questions that we have had in weeks.

The answer is quite simple. Pigeons are city birds and they walk that way to give off a sense of attitude. A small bird in a big city would never make it if it showed any signs of weakness. From day one, pigeons have had to walk around looking like the baddest birds on the block. In fact, the cocky strut that John Travolta used in “Saturday Night Fever” was taught to him by a master pigeon hired by Paramount.

Since this explanation is not supported by the entire scientific community, I think it is only right that I should share two other theories as well. One other thought is that pigeons walk that way for balance. Pigeons are rather barrel chested and if they walked without bobbing, the extra weight up front would cause them to tip over. Try to visualize this if you can. The pigeon’s first step supports the heavy chest while the head stays back as counter balance. Then as the head bobs forward the bird’s other leg moves into position to support the head, and so on. I know this sounds like one of those freaky things that I’ve made up, but some smart people truly believe this explanation. It seems a little far fetched to me. If having a counter balance was necessary, why didn’t Mae West bob her head when she walked?

This next theory seems to have the most support by the eggheads who study such things. Once again it has to do with the bird keeping its balance, only this time it is more of a visual thing than a weight counter balance. A pigeon simply moves its head forward, focuses on a point and then brings its body under its head. Did you follow that? The bird’s eyes lock onto a spot, much like spinning dancers concentrate on an object to keep their balance. Once the bird focuses and has its balance, it is safe for the rest of the body to catch up to the head.

There are your choices, Brian, you are welcome to believe anyone you wish. One is bound to be correct. It is certainly possible that all of them are wrong and there is no logical reason why pigeons walk the way they do. Just don’t try telling that to John Travolta.