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Why birds pump their tails

birds pump their tails
PUMPED UP: Black Phoebe, a resident from the Pacific states south to Argentina, pumps its tail consistently throughout the day. Art by David Sibley

Many unrelated species of birds have a habit of pumping (or wagging) their tails. They are mostly open-country birds like phoebes, pipits, Palm Warbler, Spotted Sandpiper, and others. Many hypotheses have been suggested to explain why the birds do it, but it was only in the last few years that research provided an answer.

In 2011, biologist Gregory Avellis watched Black Phoebes in California and found that phoebes pump their tails regularly all day long, and the rate of pumping does not vary much no matter what the birds are doing. However, playing a recording of a Cooper’s Hawk (suggesting that a dangerous predator was nearby) caused the phoebes to pump their tails three times as much.

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), and guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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