A bird’s eye view: Walking versus hopping

Published 2:21 pm Saturday, June 22, 2019

Recently Americus resident Jim Phillips called to ask, “Why do some birds hop while others walk”?

Because I was photographing dragonflies at that particular moment, I told Jim I would research the subject and get back to him. Some years ago, I read on this subject but couldn’t recall all the details at the time of his question. And I must say that I was pleasantly surprised that someone would actually make this observation first hand and be curious enough to inquire of me regarding this topic.

Apparently, there are multiple factors involved. We need to consider the size of the bird, the length of the legs, foraging styles, and whether the bird is mostly arboreal or terrestrial.

First, let’s examine birds that live mostly on the ground. Can you think of some? How about turkeys, chickens, guinea and pea fowl, pheasants, and Georgia’s State Game Bird — Northern Bobwhite. These birds live out most of their lives on the ground where they forage for seeds and insects and even build their nests. Locomotion by walking/running makes good sense. It is more energy-efficient for these birds to walk instead of hop. If you don’t believe it, try hopping to your mailbox and back and see for yourself if it’s more efficient for you to walk or hop. This test is not recommended for those over the age of 50!

Another reason ground-living birds walk and run has to do with predators. The ability to escape predation is paramount whether the attack comes from the sky, such as a hawk or falcon, or from the ground, like a fox or cat. Running/walking is much more efficient than hopping.

Next let’s look at mostly arboreal birds. Passerines immediately come to mind like the wood warblers and tanagers. These birds typically feed high in the canopy on tiny insects like caterpillars, moths and/or fruits, depending on the time of year. It is more efficient for these birds to hop from twig to twig instead of walking, thus conserving valuable energy resources.

The length of a bird’s legs may have something to do with whether they hop or walk. Long-legged birds such as roadrunners, cranes, limpkins, spoonbills, herons, egrets, and storks walk because as they forage for food they are capable of covering great distances. Thus walking, for them, makes sense and is more efficient.

Conversely, smaller birds with relatively short legs tend to hop more. Sparrows, towhees, finches, wrens, chickadees, and titmice come to mind in our area. Even Blue Jays hop. This type of locomotion works best for these birds as they forage and move from point to point.

Birds with heavy bodies, like geese and ducks, must, by necessity walk instead of hop.

Some birds are capable of hopping and walking. Have you ever been driving or riding along a road and observed vultures and crows gathered for a feast on carrion? As your vehicle approaches the feast, often the birds will wait until the last minute to move away from the carcass. Most of the time they will hop out of the way of the vehicle because it is a faster means of locomotion for them. After the vehicle has passed they will often walk back to the picnic and continue feeding.

Before you write or call me, let me admit there are exceptions. Most warblers hop; yet two very obvious anomalies come to mind: Louisiana Waterthrush and Ovenbird both spend much of their lives walking and nesting on the ground. There are other exceptions as well.

Did you know there are some birds that are incapable of walking? The Ruby-throated Hummingbird has legs but can only use them to grasp a perch when landing. Otherwise they resort to flight to get from point A to B. Not only are their legs tiny, they are very weak.

The same goes for Belted Kingfishers. They have very short legs but cannot walk. Their feet are used to perch with and to excavate their nest cavity in a vertical earthen bank.

Common Loons, which are present in southwest Georgia during the winter months, have legs and feet set so far back on their bodies that they are incapable of walking. They can, however, push their bodies along with their feet and slide on their bellies. Yet the far aft position of their feet makes them an excellent diver.

Another common species we see during our summer months are Chimney Swifts. AKA flying cigars, they live most of their waking hours on the wing feeding and drinking while in flight. Their feet are capable of clinging to vertical walls, such as chimneys, where they nest, but they cannot walk.

Whether a bird walks or hops has everything to do with conserving energy and predator avoidance. They use the style best suited for their size, where they spend most of their time (trees or ground), and how they forage.

Thank you, Jim for your thoughtful question and your excellent observation. Remember to enjoy our native birds and please keep your cats indoors where they belong.


Phil Hardy is an avid bird watcher and bird photographer. He lives in Americus.