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.
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.
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!
*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.
- 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