No Tall Tail

Photo Group
Cooper's Hawk (top) and Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher (bottom)
Photo by: 
Mary Nemecek and Rick Jordahl

Ever wonder why a Mockingbird’s tail is long while a Meadowlark’s is short and stubby? Nature is full of wonderful adaptations and birds have more than their fair share. In the bird world, everything is about weight and the ability to fly so you can bet the size and shape of their tail is no larger than they need it to be.

Birds use their tails for many different things but for the most part they are used as either a prop, rudder or brake. If your lifestyle doesn’t require you to be highly maneuverable or brace yourself firmly against something, why drag around a long, weighty load. No, I haven’t forgotten about peacocks and other showy animals. A very small percentage of species are willing to burden themselves for sake of courtship and mate attraction.

Remember that stubby-tailed Meadowlark I spoke of? This bird lives in wide open grasslands eating insects and seeds. Its lifestyle doesn’t require it to zig and zag through dense foliage or turn on a dime to catch fast moving prey, so a short tail works just fine.

The Coopers Hawk on the other hand makes its living zipping through forests catching elusive small birds and mammals. Their long tail is essential for steering and stopping quickly. If you have ever seen one speed through a forest, you know where they get their nickname – Blue Darters.

Perhaps no other family of birds has more special adaptations than woodpeckers. Watching one of these animals on a feeder (or especially a tree) will help divulge other uses for tails. Feathers are extremely strong structures for their relative weight, but woodpeckers have evolved with even stronger, stiffer tail feathers. They use their tails as a “kickstand” or prop. Their two feet get a good grip on the wood but without their tail anchored against the tree they would not be able to generate nearly as much force while drumming.

The next time you are studying a bird, take the time to observe the tail. Can you guess the bird’s lifestyle due to its tail size and shape? Do you think it lives in woodlands or open space? Does it chase fast prey or “slow” seeds? Remember, in the bird world, it’s all about weight so the size and shape of a bird’s tail, like other features, is no accident.

By Mark McKellar

WINTER 2005