Bird Tails: Varieties and Functions

By Dave Hanks

The size, shape, and other characteristics of oneís tail are determined by oneís habitat and life style. The tail is important as a rudder and for balance while in the air, and perhaps for display purposes or camouflage while on the ground or in trees. It must add to the abilities of each bird species, and definitely not be a drawback.

While there is great diversity in the tail structure of each of the many species, and itís difficult to make blanket statements; there are trends that birds follow according to their behaviors. Eagles, vultures, and hawks spend much time soaring and riding updrafts. Their tails are generally large and broad. Woodpeckers, which cling to tree trunks, have tails that are short, broad, and stiff. Most song birds have moderately long tails, when compared to their body size. This type of tail aids in maneuverability and speed through dense tree cover. Some birds like pheasants, peacocks, grouse, or turkeys; have tails that either fan out, or are very long and ornamental. Their main purpose is for courtship or territorial display.

The water bird pictured has very little tail at all. Long tails on water birds would get heavy and produce drag which impedes take off from water surfaces. This ibis is found in salt water marshes and ocean inlets of the southern USA. Besides its very short tail, it has a marvelous long, down-curving beak needed for its probing life style. It probes for fish, frogs, insects, small reptiles, and other aquatic creatures. Adults are 25 inches long, with a wing span of 36 inches. This white bird has black wing tips (visible in flight), reddish legs, face, and bill. During the breeding season the reds become more intense.

The White Ibis is the University of Miamiís mascot.

(A White Ibis stalking the Atlantic shallows of Southeastern Texas)