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 missing or elongated beaks, color abnormalities such as white plumage, or jarring metamorphoses into rudderless, flying orbs. 


Tailless crows are fairly uncommon; in a typical year I’ll maybe spot a couple afflicted individuals. Although feather loss and replacement is a normal part of a crow’s annual cycle, crows don’t shed their tail feathers simultaneously so we can’t blame molting season for this odd appearance. Instead, a tailless crows most often indicates that the bird recently escaped a predator or other kind of threat. 

Similar to some lizards, many bird species can drop their tails defensively 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 predation.1 Tail feathers can also be broken, rather than completely lost. Although that might sound painful, unlike a bird’s beak which is full of nerve endings, mature feathers are dead structures like hair or fingernails. While a bird surely feels and avoids the sensation, it’s not painful. 

Tails are crucial to most birds not only for their visual appeal but also because they allow birds to steer and maneuver in flight. Without one a crow can still fly and land, but they’re not nearly as agile in the air and you’ll notice their take offs and landings are a bit awkward. Fortunately, the tail will eventually grow back though just how quickly is contingent on what happened to the feathers themselves. If the feathers were pulled out, so long as the follicles weren’t damaged they will begin to regrow immediately. If, on the other hand, the feathers were broken rather than pulled out, the crow will need to wait until its annual summer molt to replace them. 


For crows fortunate enough to be brought into a wildlife care facilities, there’s also a secret second option to correcting a broken flight feather: imping. Although little known outside of rehab or falconry circles, imping is an age-old technique dating back to at least the 1240’s when it was mentioned in The Art of Falconry by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. The procedure involves trimming the broken feather to about one inch above the skin and then inserting a thin piece of wire, fiberglass, or wood (called the imping needle) into the empty feather shaft. A matching donor feather is then affixed to the exposed portion of the imping needle. Picture sheathing a double sided samurai sword, where the sword is the imping needing and the sheaths are the imbedded, trimmed feather shaft and the donor feather respectively. Historically, rust was used as a bonding agent but today vet safe epoxies are the standard adhesive. 

So the next time you see a tailless crow go ahead and give it a few extra treats. It’s not in any pain, but it’s been through something fierce. And to quite literally add insult to injury, it looks absolutely ridiculous.

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


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28 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.


    • 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?

  5. Jonathan Szanton

    my rescued flegling crow (about 1 1/2 mo old) has lost about 15 wing feathers over a period of 2 weeks; tries but cannot fly more than 1 1\2 m up. bird vitamins helped little but powdered human 50+ vitamins with them 50/50 stopped the loss after a few days. Please somebody tell me when it will start to regrow these feathers so it can fly and I can let it go. meanwhile we have a very good time together. I feed it puppy grub damp, peas, meat, crushed nuts, has learned to drink alone and is on the way to eating alone (this is a lot of work)

    • Jonathan, I do not offer rehab advice here. Perhaps others will but my suggestion is to please take your crow to a licensed rehab facility.
      Best of luck

    • Sathi

      Pls tell me how way to teach eating alone

      • Hemalatha

        Please put some crushed foods like fish or egg yolks in a small plate in front of the crow, and keep some water too in a bowl, initially it will start pecking in and out and waste food, but later it will learn to eat by itself.

    • Hi Jonathan, I am an inheritance investigator here in California. I am looking for a Jonathan Szanton who once lived in Connecticut and whose parents were Victor & Willette. Can you please contact me? Alison

  6. Mikal Deese

    Jonathan, you may have the best intentions but you don’t know what you are doing. It should be clear to you that a healthy baby bird does not lose all those feathers. The diet you are providing is inadequate in a nutrient, vital for proper development. You are setting the bird up for a short miserable life. Get it to a rehabilitator and come clean with them about how long you’ve had it and exactly what you’ve been feeding. If you care at all about the bird, now! Please do not be selfish. No excuses.

    • Christine

      I wish people would stop being so negative to people trying to help a bird such as Mikal. Firstly yes if there are rehabers about do contact them. In their absence some basic care tips on diet, housing etc would be very useful and helpful. I suggest search widely for info. I think I found one site called birdstalk, can’t recall just now. It was starlings ( I thought that was what they were, but it’s advice eitked). Not everyone who rescues a bird is selfish and wants to keep it or be a hero. I rescued 2 Jackdaw nestlings from certain death. I could find no rehab. i searched the Internet, kept them warm, and fed them every 30 min from dawn to dusk with ground up dog kibble food, egg and vitamin bird food. Now they have a more varied diet. One is fit and strong , past fledging , flies well and after being given opportunities has flown off . I didn’t see it for a few days but could hear it calling from the trees to the other I still have. It visited me today, it was not thin, it was glossy, looking for its own food on the ground, drinking from the pond. I leave food out as I do for other birds. It landed on me and It went off again no trouble. The other bird remains with me, as it’s older larger sibling had pulled out a leading wing feather, and others. It can’t fly but is now feeding more often and more active since the other bird flew . I hope it feathers do grow back and it flies away too, soon. I’m now looking up what might be going on with it, hence coming across thus blog . I never cooed and arhhed with them, as I didn’t want them to be bonded with me. But one always was confident the other shy. The confident one would hop on my arm. It seems they might be bonded but I hope not do much they have no independence. I await the bad news responses to my post,

  7. Ashley Gray

    Hello, I am from North Texas in the DFW area. I have noticed more and more female crows without any or little tail feathers. It is more common within city limits.

  8. Mikal Deese

    Let’s clear up one point. In the United States, unless you have a permit, it is against Federal (actually international) Law for you to keep any wild bird in your possession longer than it takes for you to transport to a rehabber. The only exceptions are for introduced species. You can do anything you want with an English House Sparrow, a Starling, or a Pigeon (aka Rock Dove),

    Now back to tails- losing pinched off feathers is one of the effects of West Nile Virus. Corvids have been hit really hard by this introduced virus because it is novel to the Americas. The population had no immunity as it spread through North America, leading to large die offs. Now the remaining birds seem to have developed some immunity, resulting in more birds living through the disease. It is possible that some of you are seeing birds that have been affected,

  9. Leo elsid villaruel

    What if the tail of a crow was cut using scissors, will it grow back?

  10. I have a tailless crow that is at least 4 years old now. In the past couple of months, it’s grown quite fond of me and waits for me to feed it from just a few feet away. It belongs to an interesting collection of other crows that included at least 4 white-winged crows. I might even have a 5th one, but I need to look at the coloring more closely from past videos.
    My most interesting new crow is a young crow that has absolutely no feathers on its head, neck, and legs. These areas are grey in color (down feathers?) and it has the appearance of a vulture. It also hasn’t changed one bit over the past few weeks. It does have feathers over its nostrils and ears, along with eyelashes. I don’t see signs of any pox or other ailments.

  11. Valerie Spencer

    Hi Kaeli!
    Loved you on Ologies! Following you now! I have always loved crows! I live very close to the UW Bothell campus yay! Can’t wait to go there. I have seen them at dusk flying down Bothell way and have pulled over and watched in wonder. Thank you for all of your work to educate people about Crows and Congratulations on your Doctorate! Kerp up your great work! ❤
    Valerie Spencer

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