Bird-brain: Why do pigeons bob their heads?

This is Bob.

This question occurred to me yesterday while I was waiting for a bus and spotted some pigeons nearby.  Their idiosyncratic, jerky, back-and-forth head movements sort of look like they’re continually pecking for invisible food suspended in the air – which is quite odd if you think about it, and must cause them to expend quite a bit of energy.

So why do they do it?

It turns out that the back-and-forth motion is an illusion, actually.  This was first described by Dunlap & Mowrer (1930) who found that birds (specifically chickens, in this case) don’t jerk their heads backwards; in fact, they hold their heads still relative to their surroundings and move their body forwards, before thrusting their head forwards for it to catch up with the body.  This is called the “thrust-hold cycle”.  (See picture: the head moves relative to the body, only because the body continues to move forwards while the head stays still.)

Thrust-hold cycle

It’s clear that this has something to do with their vision: pigeons don’t do it when they’re blindfolded and made to walk forwards, and they don’t do it when they are walking on a treadmill (such that they remain stationary relative to their surroundings) – which means the behaviour only occurs when the environment is unstable.

What’s happening is that they are keeping the image projected onto the retina still, to prevent the image blurring.  Humans have a similar optokinetic reflex: try slowly scanning the room from left to right in a straight line, while keeping your head still.  It’s extremely difficult to do smoothly because your eyes will keep making small, jerky saccadic movements.  But hold up a finger, slowly move it from left to right, and follow it with your gaze, and your eyes will fixate on the finger and move perfectly smoothly.  It’s because in the first instance the thing you’re looking at is the room, the retinal image of which is changing as you move your eyeballs.  Your vestibular system does its best to stabilise the image by keeping your eyes still for as long as possible and then quickly fixating on the next image of the room.  In the second instance, however, the visually important thing is your finger, and the best way to keep it in focus is by moving your eyes such that your the image of your finger is always projected onto the same part of your retina.

Rather than eye movements, pigeons make movements with their entire heads in a similar fashion to stabilise the image.  This explanation is further supported by the fact that if you put a pigeon on a treadmill such that it’s only moving passively (i.e. it’s not walking or moving its feet at all), it will still bob its head: the pigeon doesn’t even need to be walking in order to produce this behaviour, it just needs to have an unstable visual environment.

There are likely to be other functions of head-bobbing, however.  If nothing else, it’s a reasonable assumption to make simply because visual processing is such a complex task – the visual system always makes the most of what it’s got.

For instance, depth perception is more difficult for pigeons than for humans because the visual fields of each eye don’t overlap nearly as much as ours.  We can tell a lot about the depth or distance of an object by looking at it with both eyes and comparing the retinal image projected onto each.  Pigeons, with their eyes spaced more widely apart, don’t have that kind of information available to them.  One source of information they can use is motion parallax, which is based on the fact that objects closer to you will move faster than objects further away as your travel through your environment.

For instance, if you’re travelling in a car, you might notice the fence at the side of the road whizzing past so fast you can’t see it clearly; the trees behind it will move quite quickly, but not as quickly as the fence; the buildings in the background will move more slowly still; and the distant mountains you can make out in the distance will barely be moving at all.  You can get a pretty good idea of the relative distances between all these things in the foreground and background just from their relative motion.  The same idea is shown in this GIF.

Motion parallax

Pigeons create this motion parallax and maximise it in the thrust phase of their thrust-hold cycle: by moving their head a little bit, over and over again, they can get a rapidly updating idea of how far away things are, relative to the pigeon and to other things in the environment.  Even when the pigeon is moving too fast to be able to maintain the hold phase – e.g. when it’s running or landing – it will still thrust its head back and forth to sustain the motion parallax.

Incidentally, cat owners will have noticed a similar phenomenon in their pets: before making a big leap, cats will often move their heads back and forth a few times.  Although cats’ eyes overlap a great deal (even more than humans’) so they don’t face the same paucity of depth information that pigeons do, when making an ambitious jump it still helps to have all the information you can get about the distance between you and the landing spot you’re aiming for.


Dunlap, K. and Mowrer, O. H. (1930). Head movements and eye functions of birds. J. Comp. Psychol. 11, 99–113.

Pareidolia (or, the House that Looks Like Hitler)

This came to my attention today: a house that looks like Hitler.  And, weirdly enough, it does look strikingly like him – even though it bears none of the characteristics of any human face, let alone the subtle idiosyncrasies that make an individual’s face distinguishable.  It’s got a slanted roof and a prominent lintel above the door.

As far as seeing faces in things goes, this is one of the most startling incidences of face pareidolia I can think of, by far.  There have only been the fairly dubious images of the Virgin Mary burned onto toast, or the face on Mars (according to Wikipedia, taken by some to be evidence of a long-lost Martian civilisation.  Hmm).  Pareidolia is the phenomenon of seeing patterns or meaning in random objects or sounds, but – from my experience, anyway – it happens much more easily with seeing faces in things.

How does this happen?  Visual images of objects that look like faces are, as you’d expect, processed in the same area of the brain that processes images of real faces – the fusiform face area.  A study from 2009 looked at how pareidolia is produced by the brain.

The brain images on the left show where the activation is in response to seeing a face-like object (the top brain), a real face (the middle brain), and a non-face-like object (the bottom brain).  The area circled is the fusiform face area (FFA), and you can see quite clearly that it shows roughly the same pattern for real faces and face-like objects – compared with no activity when the subject is looking at a non-face-like object.  There’s the evidence.

So how are we able to tell that only one of them actually is a face, if both images are processed by the FFA?  Well, they are processed differently.  The graph on the right shows the level of activity in that area over time (a period of 0.8 seconds).  The x=0 axis is the exact time that the image was shown, and the various lines show the current, which is indicative of the FFA’s response to those images.  The pattern here is different – there is more activity when it’s a real face, and the shape of the peak is different.  This means that slightly different neural circuits are activated in the FFA, and that’s what underlies the weird perception.  More interestingly, the fact that the peak of activity happens so early (165ms is not a long time) means it is an immediate, low-level perceptual process.  That’s why even when you know it’s not a face, you can’t help seeing Hitler.

Hadjikhani, N., Kveraga, K., Naik, P., & Ahlfors, S. P. (2009).  Early (M170) activation of face-specific cortex by face-like objects.  Neuroreport, 20 (4), 403-7.