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Why Do Some Birds Stand On One Leg?

Image by ReaderWalker via Flickr
Northern Mockingbird on one leg (Image by ReaderWalker via Flickr)

If you have ever spent even a short amount of time watching or admiring birds, you’ve undoubtedly noticed a strange practice that seems to be prevalent among most bird species: standing on one leg.

Since the careful balancing act has long piqued the curiosity of birders around the world, we thought we’d give an explanation for the behavior.

There are actually a number of reasons why a bird might stand on one leg. Here are a few.

1) Injury. In some cases, birds aren’t voluntarily standing on one leg—they’re forced to. Some injuries force a bird to tuck its foot up against its body while other birds might be completely missing the leg. However, an injury is rarely the cause of unipedal resting, as it is sometimes called.

1156704_566208942) Heat-saving method. If you’ve been noticing more birds resting on one leg when perched recently, it’s probably due to the cold snap that’s been shaking up the nation. One of the most widespread theories for unipedal resting is that it regulates body temperatures. Wading birds in particular tend to stand on one leg more often, especially in water, which is most likely due to the fact that the water is cold.

According to Bird Note, tucking in one leg against the stomach helps reduce the amount of heat escaping a bird’s body. This is similar to how birds tuck their head into their feathers or how we might pull our arms closer to our body when it’s cold.

3) Comfort. While the heat-saving theory sounds reasonable, some people notice hawks standing on one leg when temperatures are quite high. Well, sort of how we shift legs when standing, sometimes it might just be more comfortable for a bird to stand on one foot. The flexor tendons on birds lock on to branches, so it’s much easier for them to stand on one leg than we might imagination.

4) Camouflage. We’re not sure how widespread this reason is, but certain birds like Blue Herons will sometimes stand on one leg when hunting because two legs look suspicious in certain environments, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.

2 Comments

  1. This is the most highly studied reason why birds stand on one leg. We can compare it to how people put their hands in their pockets when it’s cold.

  2. Most birds can stand on one leg. Common birds like pigeons and crows, pets like parrots and finches, water birds like ducks and flamingos can all stand on one leg.

    In fact, even birds of prey like eagles and kites can stand on one leg. However, there are some birds that are not usually seen standing on a simple leg.

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