Why Do Chickens Bob Their Heads When They Walk?

July 17, 2018


Chickens, as well as pigeons, doves, cranes, magpie and quail among other birds, appear to bob their heads when they walk.

Some theories as to why they do this are to keep their balance or to provide depth perception, but most scientists agree that the real reason for why chickens bob their head when they walk is to maintain an acute sense of their surroundings.

Since chickens and other small birds are prey for many predators, it's important that as they move, they are able to constantly scan the area for danger. And since they eat small bugs and insects, it's important that they are able to sense movement as they walk.



Chicken Eyes vs. Human Eyes


But there's one problem with this. Unlike humans, chickens' eyeballs don't move in the eye socket. They're fixed. So in order to shift their gaze, chickens have to move their whole head, and conversely, in order to focus on a fixed point, they have to keep their head completely still - even if their body is moving.

By holding their head steady, their eyes have the opportunity to stabilize their vision and sense movement on the horizon even while they're on the move.

This helps them sense danger and also helps them to spot bugs they want to eat. The slight movement of a bug against a stationary background is easier for them to see if their eyes are focused on the same spot as they move.

You might have seen the Mercedes car commercial that came out a few years ago that really highlighted just how stable a chicken keeps its head, even as its body is moving.  I tried that same thing recently with one of our three-week old chicks. Even at that young age, they have the head thing down pretty well!


Because of their long, thin necks, chickens can easily move their heads independently from their bodies.

And because chickens and other birds can't move their eyes within the eye socket, and have to move their whole head in order to change their field of vision, it appears that their head is "bobbing".

But is it really?  

Although it appears that chickens bob their heads as they walk, there isn't actually any backward  (or up and down) movement at all.

The chicken will move its head forward, then lock its head (and therefore its eyes) in place, allowing its vision to stabilize and give the eyes enough time to survey their surroundings for predators, while allowing their body to catch up to their head.  And then the movement is repeated.

Why Chickens Bob Their Heads


So the "bobbing" of the chicken's head is merely the movement they make jutting their head out, then walking forward to realign their body under their head, and jutting their head out again - the whole while maintaining clear vision of the horizon and any impending danger.


Further Reading:
https://www.wired.com/2015/01/whats-birds-bob-heads-walk/#start-of-content
https://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/pigeon.html
http://articles.extension.org/pages/66092/how-well-can-chickens-see

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