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Why Do Bird Heads Have Better Stabilizers Than Movie Cameras?

When it comes to dance moves, mammals have birds beat. Sure, our feathered friends can bob and strut, but that’s about the extent of their repertoire. Birds have one move though, that mammals will never be able to master — birds can keep their heads perfectly still as their bodies move.

There’s actually a term for this behavior. It’s called “head tracking.” And while owls may be the best at making it look cute, many birds including geese, raptors, chickens can do the same. In fact, in a study published earlier this year, Stanford University engineer Ahsley Pete and colleagues found that swans are able to keep their heads still while flapping through the air.

So why do birds have this ability? It all comes down to vision.

For birds to see a cat prowling in the underbrush or a tasty caterpillar crawling on a leaf, it helps if their eyes create a static background so movement really pops up. Our eyes do this when they’re constantly moving around in our skulls, correcting for every tilt of our heads. But most birds can’t independently move their eyes. Instead, an expanded and more sensitive inner ear allows birds to be very aware of how they’re holding their heads and keep them still as the run, flap, and look around.

You don’t need to go to funny YouTube videos to see this. If you’ve ever seen a pigeon bobbing on the sidewalk you’ve already seen the same behavior. While it looks like the birds are thrusting their necks back and forth, they’re really letting their heads hang back for a second before snapping it forward to catch up with their bodies, blinking as a kind of “refresh” to focus on the next view.

So the next time you do The Funky Chicken, try to keep your head still while the rest of your body moves. It totally won’t creep out everyone else on the dance floor. Promise.

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