Birds don’t think about much, mostly just food and sex. Despite the simplicity of such a life, bird communication can be quite complex. Birds are renowned for their vocal abilities, but they use lots of visual cues, too. Perhaps nothing is more obvious than the crests sported by many species.
I got to thinking about this while staying at Maple Hill Farm Inn in Hallowell. It’s my home away from home while I’m serving in the Maine legislature. Feeders draw a goodly variety of birds to the front lawn, and a parade of crested birds flit past my window. At any one time, there may be blue jays, cardinals and tufted titmice in view, sporting more exotic and colorful headwear than you’d find at a Shrine Circus.
Crests are widespread in the bird world. In Maine, consider the great-crested flycatcher and the double-crested cormorant. Many crests are so small that they are only seen when the bird is agitated. Ruby and golden-crowned kinglets are named for the color of their crests, but these are seldom visible except when the bird is expressing alarm or annoyance. Some crests are enormous, especially among exotic birds such as cockatoos and peacocks. A few crests are permanently upright, but most can be raised and lowered at will.
A few birds use their crests for defense. When confronted by a marauder, they may pop up their feathers, perhaps startling or distracting the predator. Most birds manipulate their crests in order to communicate with their own kind, signaling romance or aggression. For instance, here’s your challenge: Find a cardinal singing with its crest lowered. Singing is an act of territorial dominance. Singing with a lowered crest would be like wooing a mate and hoping no one hears.
Here’s your next challenge: Find a squawking blue jay with a lowered crest. A jay feeding peacefully with friends and family will typically lower his crest so as not to intimidate or annoy his companions. But if there is something to squawk at, the crest pops right up.
Crested birds in Maine come in all shapes and sizes. Consider the plumes of a snowy egret, which are at their showiest in breeding season. The wood duck’s swept-back crest is eye-catching, while the upraised crest of a hooded merganser is imposing. Belted kingfishers are relatively fearless and hold their crests high most of the time. Ditto for pileated woodpeckers. On the other hand, Bohemian and cedar waxwings spend much of the year in large flocks where aggressive behavior may antagonize neighbors. They tend to keep their crests lowered and swept back except when on breeding territories.
The ruffed grouse is a game bird that understandably fears humans. But on its breeding territory or in its much-loved dust bath, a defiant grouse may give you the full crested display, demanding you leave. If nothing else, crests make a bird look bigger than it is.
We’re accustomed to crests that stream backward. Most crested birds in North America migrate, so crests must be at least somewhat aerodynamic. In the tropics, many birds travel neither fast nor far. Crests that extend forward or bristle prominently from the forehead are more common among birds that never worry about a headwind. Ground birds are also more likely to have significant crests. Various western quails have silly topknots. The American roadrunner of the desert southwest may be fleet of foot, but he’s not fast enough to worry about airstreams.
By the way, which is faster, a coyote or roadrunner? See answer below.
There must be significant evolutionary advantages to crests, because bird ancestors had them, too. Many dinosaurs had crests that predated feathers. Then and now, crests could be made out of keratin, a hard protein that is found in hair, fingernails and rhinoceros horns. The cassowary in New Guinea is a flightless bird that sports a keratin crest.
Some birds, primarily fowl, have fleshy crests called combs. Wild turkeys even have wattles to accompany their combs. Once again, birds that stay in groups are often in need of more communication tools. A crest signals attitude with much less effort than it takes to crow or sing. Upraised crests can show bravado; lowered crests can display defeat and dejection. Depressed birds and humans alike are said to be “crestfallen.”
Now then, despite the cartoons you watched well into adulthood, coyotes can run at least twice as fast as roadrunners. The roadrunner can hit a top speed of only about 20 mph. Maybe their crests slow them down.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.