Crow curiosities: crows without tails

For the most part, crows come in the same general size, shape and color, but every once in a while individuals will deviate from this template in eye catching ways.  These deviations can manifest as color abnormalities such as white plumage, missing or elongated beaks, or for the focus of this post, missing tails.

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Crows missing their tail are fairly uncommon; in a typical year I’ll only spot a half dozen or so.  Why does it happen and what does it mean? A tail-less crows most often indicates that the individual recently escaped a predator or other kind of threat.  Tail loss is also a rare but disappointing outcome of a too stressed bird in a field biologist’s mist nest or hand.

Just like a skink, many bird species can drop their tails as a last resort to avoid being injured or killed.  In fact, tail feathers require less force to detach in contrast to other feathers on a bird’s body.  In addition, the force required to remove tail feathers decreases with how vulnerable a species is to predation1.  

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Fortunately, while tail loss makes them a little less acrobatic in the sky, they can still fly and land just fine.   Provided the follicle wasn’t damaged when the feather was pulled out, the feathers will being to regrow immediately*.  Until then, they’re stuck looking like a little black football with wings, but that’s certainly better than being hawk food!

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*The time until regrowth has been edited from the previously published version.  My thanks to Mikal Deese for providing the expertise and teaching me something new.

Literature cited

  1. Moller, A.P., Nielsen, J.T., Erritzoe, J.  (2006).  Losing the last feather: feather loss as an antipredator adaptation in birds.  Behavioral Ecology 17: 1046-1056

12 Comments

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12 responses to “Crow curiosities: crows without tails

  1. Mikal Deese, CWR

    I’m a wild bird rehabilitator. In my experience, pulled feathers grow back right away, no need to wait until molting season- as you say, provided the follicle was not damaged. Last year, I had a Red-tailed Hawk that was found with no tail or primary flight feathers, starving because of course it could not fly to hunt. The kindest thing I can say is that someone “harvested” them. Please hear the swear words that I left out of that statement. She recovered from the starvation, gained weight, regrew her feathers and flight, and was released.

    • Thanks Mikal! I was wondering about this but couldn’t find any trusted sources that would state conclusively if they can regrow right away or not. I’ve updated the post to reflect your comments. Cheers

      • Mikal Deese, CWR

        Thank you! A broken feather won’t be replaced until the time it would molt naturally, but a missing feather starts growing back quickly. It’s also interesting that some species lose feathers (and regrow them) much more easily than others. It’s hard to pick up a dove without dislodging feathers. I once made the mistake of trying to hold a dove by the tail, and was horrified to find that I was holding his entire tail, but not the bird. He grew it all back in only three weeks. Definitely a way to evade predators. Corvids will take longer. Keep up the good work!

  2. Mary Kittley

    There is a corvid that cannot fly living in and around my local supermarket.
    I give it meat scraps whenever I see it and I have found out that a few other people do the same. It does not seem to be able to fly. I saw it flap its wings and flutter a few meters and noticed it did not have any tail feathers.
    It has been like this for over four weeks now. Initially it looked in a bad way and although the general condition of its feathers does seem to be improving it still cannot fly. It also has a bare circle running around the top of one leg. it seems to have kept itself alive like this for a month.
    what are the chances it will recover?

    • Hi Mary, honestly it doesn’t look good for this crow. Stranger things have happened but my guess is it’s health won’t improve much. Keep an eye out and let me know what happens!

  3. Hi, I found a crow with no tail feathers and also what appeared to be an injured leg at the back of an IGA supermarket in Northbridge Perth, it looks in farely poor condition and I wonder if it is the same crow sited by ‘Mary Kittley’ POST: August 26, 2016 at 10:29 pm.

    I decided to take it home to where I live in the bush/hills outside of Perth to see if it can be rehabilitated. It is eating and drinking. Will its tail feathers grow back and how long will it take? I’d like to see this bird healthy again and then release it back to its original place. Any advice is welcomed.

    Thanks,
    Martyn

    • Hi Martyn, in general I’m not very supportive of folks trying to rehab crows at home so you’ll have to look to other readers for help there. As far as the tail goes though that all depends on if the feather pores were injured when the feathers got pulled out. If they weren’t, they should grow back immediately. I’m not sure how long it takes though. If you can track down some rehab folks they might have a more precise idea.

      • Well thanks for your response and your honesty. I think I’ll take it to my local vet and see what kind of assessment that they can make.

  4. Have a family of 5 that I feed regularly at my home in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. One is missing tail feathers. Seems to manage quite well. I’ve been keeping an eye to see if they grow back. How long would this normally take? Carol

    • I’ve heard different time frames from different folks. I think it depends largely on the manner in which they lost the feathers. Some people report that they will start to grow back immediately whereas others say they have to wait until the next molt. Keep and eye on your bird and let me know what your experience is!

      • Maybe this will help. If the feathers are broken off, in other words, the stump of the feather remains intact, the feather will not grow back until the next molt releases the stump. Imagine that the body “thinks” the feather is still there. It won’t be dropped until the whole feather would have dropped out so it can be replaced. On the other hand, if the feather was pulled out entirely, the body “knows” it’s missing and will start to form a new replacement ASAP. It can take a couple of weeks to form, then starts to push through the skin, and starts to grow into a new feather. Make sense now? On a crow, it will take 4 to maybe 6 weeks to regrow a useful tail. Again, if the follicle is damaged as the feather is yanked out, the replacement may be deformed or even absent. That’s more likely to happen with the primary flight feathers which are actually attached to bone. Delightful to be able to share the odd bits I’ve learned from years as a rehabilitator! Next question?

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