Why do pigeons lift their tails up?

Pigeons often lift their tails up when walking or standing. There are a few main reasons why pigeons exhibit this behavior:

Balance and Stability

Lifting their tails helps pigeons keep their balance and stability when moving around. The tail acts as a counterweight and rudder, helping the pigeon adjust its center of gravity and change direction. When a pigeon lifts its tail up vertically, it shifts its weight backwards and allows it to walk along ledges and branches without tipping forward and falling.

Steering and Maneuvering

Angling the tail to the left or right helps pigeons steer and turn smoothly. By lifting and adjusting their tail, pigeons are able to make quick maneuvers around obstacles and through crowded areas. The tail acts like a rudder, giving them greater control over their movements.

Braking and Slowing Down

Fanning out the tail feathers creates drag that allows a pigeon to brake and slow down quickly. Pigeons flare their tail to help them come to an abrupt stop, especially important when landing on wires or narrow ledges.


Lifting the tail exposes the uropygial gland near the base of the tail. This gland secretes oil that the pigeon uses to coat its feathers for waterproofing and insulation. By lifting the tail, the pigeon can spread the oil through its plumage to help regulate body temperature.

Courtship Displays

Male pigeons often lift and fan their tails during courtship rituals. The spreading of the tail feathers shows off the iridescent colors and patterns on the tail, and demonstrates the male’s health and vitality. This behavior helps attract potential mates.

Alertness and Vigilance

Keeping the tail up in the air allows a pigeon to quickly spread its feathers and take flight if needed. It’s a defensive posture that indicates wariness and preparedness to escape danger.


The position and motion of the tail conveys information to other pigeons. A vertically lifted tail may signal dominance or confidence, while a fanned tail could indicate aggression. Pigeons also use their tails during mating rituals and parental feeding of chicks.

Preening and Cleaning

Lifting the tail provides a pigeon access to the preen gland to spread oil on its feathers. It also allows the pigeon to direct its beak to clean feathers around the vent area underneath the tail.

Digestion and Defecation

The tail up position facilitates digestion and expulsion of feces. Pigeons do not have separate openings for urination and defecation like mammals. Keeping the tail elevated allows waste to pass out of the cloaca more easily.

Anatomy and Physiology

Certain aspects of a pigeon’s anatomy and physiology explain why lifting the tail is beneficial:

  • Pigeons have relatively small heads but large, broad tails. The tail acts as a counterbalance to the head and front of the body.
  • The tail contains rectrices (tail feathers) that can fan out to create drag and generate lift.
  • Tail muscles and joints allow extensive movement and articulation of the tail.
  • Pigeons have limited neck mobility compared to birds like owls. The tail gives them additional steering capability.
  • Their legs are positioned centrally under their body, rather than spaced on the sides, necessitating tail use for maneuvering.

Without the ability to lift and articulate their tail, pigeons would have difficulty balancing, steering, taking flight quickly, and controlling airflow over their body.

Differences Between Pigeon Species

The tail lifting behavior varies somewhat between different pigeon species and breeds:

  • Common city pigeons often carry their tail at a 45 degree upward angle.
  • Fancy breeds like Fantails have very large, broad tails that prevent them from lifting them vertically upright.
  • Fast, agile fliers like homing pigeons tend to lift their tails fully upright more often.
  • Ground pigeons like the Diamond Dove hold their tails horizontally or just slightly elevated.
  • Some domestic breeds have difficulty lifting their tail due to human selective breeding.

The differences in typical tail position reflects adaptations for different lifestyles and flight styles between pigeon species and breeds.

Comparison with Other Bird Species

Many other birds exhibit similar tail lifting and fanning behaviors as well, though to varying degrees:

Species Tail Lifting Behavior
Chickens Frequently lift tail vertically for balance, steering, and predator avoidance.
Peacocks Males lift, shake, and fan tail during courtship displays.
Turkeys Lift tail when displaying to show off tail feathers.
Parrots Use tail as a stabilizer and rudder when climbing and flying.
Birds of prey Eagles, hawks, and owls articulate tail to increase maneuverability.

The common function of the tail across bird groups underlines how crucial tail feathers are for avian balance, steering, and flight control.

Feral versus Domestic Pigeons

There are some differences in tail carriage between feral pigeons living in urban environments versus domestic pigeons:

  • Feral pigeons spend more time walking and balancing on narrow ledges, requiring frequent tail lifting.
  • Domestic pigeons with less developed flight muscles may lift their tails less often.
  • Confined living spaces lead domestic pigeons to rely less on their tail for maneuvering.
  • Selection by pigeon breeders tends to favor aesthetics over functional tail movement.

However, both feral and domestic pigeons lift their tails to some degree since the behavior is innate and serves multiple functions related to balance, flying, and feather care.

Tail Injuries and Health Issues

Injuries or medical conditions affecting a pigeon’s tail can limit its ability to lift and spread the tail properly:

  • Broken or missing tail feathers due to predators, accidents, or overcrowding.
  • Damage to tail muscles, joints, or nerves from trauma or nutritional deficiencies.
  • Restricted tail movement due to bone fractures or dislocations.
  • Paralysis or weakness from spinal cord injuries or diseases.
  • Impaired balance if the tail has been improperly trimmed or damaged.

A pigeon unable to lift its tail will have difficulty balancing, flying, steering, landing, and regulating its body temperature. Veterinary care can sometimes successfully treat tail injuries and disorders in pigeons.

Splaying the Tail

“Splaying” refers to a pigeon holding its tail feathers loosely fanned out while at rest. Some potential reasons pigeons exhibit tail splaying behavior are:

  • Excessively warm temperatures cause them to splay their tail to cool down.
  • It allows greater circulation of air to aid thermoregulation.
  • The loose tail feathers help pigeons stay balanced in the wind.
  • Indicates relaxation as the bird is unconcerned about potential threats.
  • A means of sunning themselves and absorbing UV light for vitamin D.
  • Helps keep the tail clean and free of debris when resting on the ground.

However, excessive tail splaying can signal illness or nutritional deficiencies in some cases.


In summary, pigeons lift their tails for a variety of important reasons related to balance, steering, maneuvering, flight control, feather maintenance, thermoregulation, courtship, digestion, and communication. Proper tail carriage and movement is a critical aspect of a healthy pigeon’s physiology and behavior. The tail acts as a dynamic steering rudder and counterweight that gives pigeons great agility and stability in their environment. Next time you see a pigeon walking with its tail in the air, you’ll understand all the functions this behavior serves!

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