It seems there is a crest-fest going on. Half the birds flitting through the backyard right now seem to be sporting bold top feathers. For every crest-free chickadee and nuthatch coming to the bird feeder, there’s an audaciously-coiffed cardinal, titmouse or blue jay. Beyond the feeder, Bohemian and cedar waxwings are starting to pop up across Maine.
Most of the crestless birds are long gone, enjoying a tropical vacation. Warblers, swallows, thrushes, orioles and tanagers are on a beach somewhere, sipping pina coladas.
I suppose it can’t be a coincidence that birds with crests don’t travel far. Many of our crested birds are year-round residents or short-distance migrants. Pileated woodpeckers don’t go anywhere. Belted kingfishers go only far enough south to guarantee ice-free water. Great-crested flycatchers don’t leave the country in winter. The evidence suggests a crest might give a bird a localized benefit, but it’s a drawback for a bird that has to fly to South America.
Crests are the feathers atop a bird’s head that can be raised and lowered, usually to communicate something. It might communicate a threat or defensive display. It might convey rank in the pecking order. It might invite courtship. It’s probably a lot of things. Humans also have many non-verbal communication tools. Just cut someone off in traffic and see what kind of non-verbal gesture you receive.
Researchers have studied the use of crests to communicate, but there’s not a lot of literature on why crested birds aren’t likely to fly long distances. Consider the tufted titmouse. It nests from eastern Maine to eastern Texas, but this relative of the chickadee doesn’t migrate at all. There are four other species of titmouse in the western states. All have crests. None migrate. The pyrrhuloxia is a close, nearly identical cousin of the cardinal. It’s a denizen of the desert southwest. It doesn’t migrate.
The tropics are loaded with exotic birds that have fancy crests. Cockatoos and cockatiels are among the most famous, and their adornment has helped make them popular pet birds. Hoopoes are Old World members of the woodpecker family. They have enormous crests. Peacocks and many other fowl have crests. Even some penguins have crests.
It’s a guess, but a good one, that crested birds don’t fly far because their feathered finery creates too much drag over a long-distance flight. Imagine wearing a sombrero in a marathon. It’s also likely that non-migratory birds need more communication tools, since they have to put up with each other year-round.
Crests have been around ever since dinosaurs became birds. Fossil records show plenty of examples of Jurassic headgear. Back then, the crests were made of stronger plates, but the reasons for having them were likely the same. Crests can be erected and expanded to make a critter look bigger, too tough to mess with. Conversely, they can be lowered and retracted to show a more benign attitude.
Each crested species likely has its own language. My only experience with caged birds comes from visiting friends. Their cockatoos might raise crests in a display of friendly welcome, or unfriendly antagonism. I’m not proficient at reading cockatoo body language, and I usually don’t find out if the bird likes me or hates me until it bites me. I can read backyard birds better.
Bohemian and cedar waxwings often feed in huge winter flocks, and it seems they go to great pains to keep their crests lowered so as not to annoy each other. Crest-raising becomes more pronounced when it’s time to attract mates and defend nesting territories.
Blue jays and cardinals have similar crests, but the blue jays are much more likely to keep theirs down. They interact in larger groups than cardinals and generally don’t want to antagonize each other with open displays of dominance. They raise their crests during periods of agitation, as when calling out an intruder alert.
Cardinals mostly avoid each other, except when a food source draws them together in winter. Apparently, keeping their crests up most of the time doesn’t offend other cardinals. When annoyed, they just raise their crests higher. In mating season, cardinals are territorially aggressive and signal with their crests more readily.
As we ride out another long Maine winter, I recommend spicing it up by watching the behavior of your backyard crested friends. Are crests raised or lowered at the feeder? Raised or lowered when another bird joins it? Raised or lowered when calling? And, if you approach a crested bird, how does it react to you?
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.