Why do some birds hop and others walk? © Getty Images

Why do some birds hop and others walk?

Asked by: G O’Rourke

Birds that spend most of their time in trees tend to hop because this is faster and easier on narrow twigs and branches than walking like a tightrope acrobat. These birds have evolved legs and feet that hop efficiently, so it makes sense to keep this up even when they are foraging on the ground.

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Hopping works best for small, lightweight birds with short legs. Each hop takes them as far as several steps if they were walking normally, so they use less energy. But even though it beats walking, hopping is slower than running. Blackbirds, for example, will switch from hopping to running if they are in a hurry.

Birds that belong to the same group usually share the same way of moving around, but this isn’t always the case. In the corvid family, for example, crows, ravens and magpies all walk, but jays hop.

Birds that nest and forage on the ground are much more likely to run than hop. This includes all the game birds like pheasants and grouse, but also smaller birds, such as wagtails, that chase insects on the ground.

Birds that forage along the seashore or estuary have often evolved long legs for wading that allow them to cover a lot of ground efficiently with each stride. It would be quite impractical for them to hop on such spindly legs. Another shorebird, the sandpiper, runs despite its relatively short legs. This allows it to forage very close to the water’s edge and still outrun the incoming waves.

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