Saturday, January 21, 2023

What birds have mohawks (crests)?

Have you noticed a bird with a crest, tuft, or mohawk on its head? Did you wonder what it was and think that it should be easy to figure out? Not so!

A surprising number of birds from many different groups have crests.

You may know some crested birds from your backyard, like Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Tufted Titmice in the East.

Likewise, Steller's Jays, Oak Titmice, and Juniper Titmice are backyard birds with crests in the West.

But then there are widespread Cedar Waxwings, Pileated Woodpeckers, and Great Crested Flycatchers.

And don't forget about Wood Ducks, Ruffed Grouse, Eared Grebes, Black-crowned Night-Herons, and Belted Kingfishers.

Here is an incomplete list of crested birds in the US. Plus, I list some birds with crests from elsewhere in the world that come to mind.

Photo of Belted Kingfisher
Belted Kingfisher. Greg Gillson.

What is a crest on a bird?

A crest is simply a group of longer feathers growing from the crown on a bird.

These are modified contour feathers. There is nothing otherwise special about them.

If the crown feathers on a bird are all rather short, then the head shape appears rounded, following the contour of the skull.

Certain birds have slightly longer crown feathers, forming a peak at the back of the head. Flycatchers are an example. These normally aren't considered a crest if the individual feathers blend smoothly. A ragged partial crest may be formed as individual feathers break from the hind-head contour.

If the longer crown feathers stick up at all times, then it is considered a crest. 

Crests composed of fewer crown feathers may be labeled as tufts.

Some birds have long feathers of the side of the head during breeding season, like the Eared Grebe.

The crests on some species of terns are off the hind neck.

I had pelicans on this list for a while. In the breeding season they have long feathers on their hind crown and back of neck like a mane on a horse.

Most (all?) birds have the ability to raise their crown feathers. Thus, even the male round-headed Ruby-crowned Kinglet can raise his green crown feathers. Then a normally hidden fiery red crown patch is revealed, as the red bases of the crown feathers are exposed. [See below]. This is not usually considered to be a crest--just raised crown feathers (but a similar bird in Europe and Africa is called a Firecrest).

Photo of Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Raised crown feathers of Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Greg Gillson.

Following is an incomplete list of crested birds in North America. I have included a few photos as examples.

Tufted Duck

Wood Duck

Photo of Wood Duck
Wood Duck. Greg Gillson.

Hooded Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

Photo of Red-breasted Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser. Greg Gillson.

Ruffed Grouse

Scaled Quail

Eared Grebe

Photo of Eared Grebe
Eared Grebe. Greg Gillson

Crested Caracara


Tufted Puffin

Double-crested Cormorant

Greater Roadrunner

Photo of Greater Roadrunner
Greater Roadrunner. Greg Gillson

Elegant Tern

Belted Kingfisher

Pileated Woodpecker

Photo of Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker. Greg Gillson

Great Crested Flycatcher

Brown-crested Flycatcher

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Photo of Ash-throated Flycatcher
Ash-throated Flycatcher. Greg Gillson

Tufted Flycatcher

Blue Jay

Steller's Jay

Photo of Steller's Jay
Steller's Jay. Greg Gillson

Tufted Titmouse

Oak Titmouse

Black-crested Titmouse

Juniper Titmouse

Bridled Titmouse

Photo of Bridled Titmouse
Bridled Titmouse. Greg Gillson

Bohemian Waxwing


Cedar Waxwing

Photo of Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing. Greg Gillson

Northern Cardinal


Photo of Pyrrhuloxia
Pyrrhuloxia. Greg Gillson

Some birds with crests outside the United States:

Great Crested Grebe

Crested Tern


Black-crested Magpie-Jay

Victoria Crowned Pigeon

Harpy Eagle


Antillean Crested Hummingbird

Rufous-crested Coquette

Green-crowned Plovercrest



Secretary Bird

Related posts:

Why so weird? Do bird's knees really bend backwards?

The many shapes of bird beaks

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