Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About A Bird Tail

Most people call a bird’s tail a tail. But did you know what it’s really called?

In this article, you will learn about the importance of bird tails and more.

What Is A Bird’s Tail Called?

A bird’s tail feathers are called rectrices. Along with remiges, found on the wing, the rectrices are the feathers that birds use to fly.

Rectrices are long, stiff, asymmetrical feathers found on a bird’s tail. They tend to be lighter and stiffer feathers than the bird’s body plumage.

Muscles at the feather base help the bird generate thrust and lift, thus helping them fly. Most species have twelve rectrices in their tails, while the total number of rectrices can range from six to thirty-two.

Having tails helps birds stay airborne and maneuver while flying, but tails also help many birds perform additional, often surprising functions.

From courting rituals to territorial displays and even food gathering, rectrices are some of the most important feathers on a bird’s body.

Like all feathers, rectrices molt. Molting is where a bird sheds its old, worn feathers, similar to how snakes shed their skin. Without tails feathers, some birds can’t fly.

While some species molt all of their rectrices at once, others spread the molt over a longer period of time to avoid being completely flightless at any one time.

Why Do Birds Have Tails?

You might have asked yourself why birds have tails. The long, unwieldy tails often look more cumbersome than helpful.

The simplest reason is that long stiff feathers at the rear of a bird are perfectly suited to use as a kind of rudder.

As it flies, these tails help the birds steer and maneuver, allowing them to get where they need to go while avoiding threats along the way.

However, rectrices come in handy for all kinds of ornithological reasons other than simple flight. Long, stiff tails help birds maintain balance while perched.

Acting as a counterbalance to their bodies and heads, the feathers allow birds to balance on branches and telephone wires.

If it weren’t for rectrices, a sleeping fowl would easily lose balance and may not live out the night.

Then there are a few more surprising reasons why birds have tail feathers. For example, rectrices can help increase an individual bird’s chances of successfully attracting a mate.

Long, extravagantly colored and distinctly patterned tail feathers act as a lure and measuring stick for many potential partners.

The peacock and birds of paradise are particularly striking displays of this striking evolutionary use of tail feathers, as are many related birds of Australia.

Can A Bird Fly Without A Tail?

Technically yes, birds can fly without their tails. However, because of their numerous uses, it’s much more difficult to achieve and maintain flight, as well as avoid predators and other hazards.

A bird without a tail may not live that long in the wild. Without perfect flight, a fledgling can turn into a sitting duck.

Because of the numerous advantages that tail feathers bring, many species evolved to molt, or drop, their worn-out rectrices over a long time, gradually changing the old tail feathers for new.

However, some species molt much more quickly. A tailless magpie is a common sight.

Tail feathers can also come off in emergencies. Long, extravagant tail feathers might attract predators, but they can also detach if it needs to escape a cat’s grasping front claws.

As a last resort, a bird will willingly ditch its rectrices and fly another day.

Birds can still fly, perch, balance, and also breed without tail feathers. For many types of birds, though, flying would probably become more difficult.

A tailless bird is easier to catch, as well as less desirable to potential partners. Many species molt when they have young in the nest for exactly this reason.

Because tail feathers often help it become a parent, they don’t drop them until they’ve successfully bred.

First, they use their rectrices to ensure their genes get passed on, then they molt and grow new, stronger ones for the next year where the whole cycle starts over.

What Would Happen If A Bird Didn’t Have A Tail?

Many birds, especially Australian birds, don’t grow they’re tail feathers until they are adults. Other birds molt their tail feathers every few years. A tailless bird is not all that uncommon.

Even if a bird loses its tail feathers in a fight or while evading a predator, the rectrices grow back.

That’s the cool thing about feathers – while they look like a permanent fixture, they’re actually always in the process of growing, molting, and regrowing. Just like feathers in the wing and body plumage, the tails regrow.

While life isn’t impossible for a bird with no tail, not having one can make it harder to land, perch and take off, as well as turn mid-flight.

Do All Birds Have Tails?

Most species of birds have twelve tail feathers, though they can have as few as six or as many as thirty-two.

Members of the same species tend to have the same number of wing feathers, called remiges, as well as rectrices.

Scientists still aren’t sure why different birds have different numbers of rectrices.

Bird tails often get overlooked as we focus primarily on the wings or head of the bird.

The shape of the rectrices, their number, and markings play such key roles in the survival and success of each bird, as well as the species as a whole, that there is certainly much more to learn.

Julian Goldie - Owner of ChiperBirds.com

Julian Goldie

I'm a bird enthusiast and creator of Chipper Birds, a blog sharing my experience caring for birds. I've traveled the world bird watching and I'm committed to helping others with bird care. Contact me at [email protected] for assistance.