Ear tufts are a pair of small bunches of feathers that stand upright from a bird's head or may drape alongside the head, usually positioned closer to the sides of the head rather than in the center. These tufts resemble upright ears or elongated plumes, but are unrelated to sound and have no impact on a bird's hearing. The term ear tufts is universally understood and widely used, but these feather structures are also occasionally called horns or ears.
What Do Bird Ear Tufts Do?
The exact purpose of ear tufts is largely unknown, but ornithologists have developed several plausible theories that are widely accepted as at least partial explanations for these unique feather features.
Ear tufts may be part of a bird's camouflage. They help break up the shape of a bird and make it look more like a broken branch or other natural feature. This can help conceal a roosting bird or keep a silent predator such as an owl hidden from its prey.
Larger, more prominent ear tufts may be a desirable feature in a prospective mate, signaling good health and overall strength and energy. They may be used as part of courtship displays as well. These tufts are usually lost while molting after the breeding season.
Many birds can control their ear tufts, raising and lowering them in threat postures that make them seem larger and more aggressive. This can make the birds seem more intimidating to help defend territory or dissuade unwanted intruders.
Birds may use ear tuft posture or movement to signal to a hunting partner or mate, which can be useful for communication or recognition. Tuft position could also be an indication of bird emotions, dominance, or submission.
What Ear Tufts Aren't
It is easy to confuse ear tufts with other feather structures, and it is important to understand what these feathers aren't in order to distinguish between different feathers. A bird's ear tufts are not:
First and foremost, these feathers are not ears and have nothing to do with how well a bird can hear. A bird's ears are on the sides of its head, not generally near the tufts. The tufts are only feathers, and have no connection to the skeletal structure to direct sound to the ears.
Birds with crests generally have only one structure at the center of the head, rather than a pair of tufts on the sides of the head. Crests can look similar, however, and may be raised and lowered, used for communication, or play a part in courtship displays just as ear tufts can.
The term plumes is typically reserved for longer, showier feathers that are part of breeding displays, rather than the stockier, more substantial ear tufts. For most birds with elaborate plumes, those plumes are lost after the breeding season, but ear tufts are often kept year-round.
Many young birds show sparse feathers that appear to be ear tufts when they first grow feathers, but these do not qualify as ear tufts. As the young birds mature, these initial tuft-like structures will blend into their mature plumage and will no longer be visible.
While ear tufts may be near the broad facial disc of some owls, they are not part of the same structure. The facial disc surrounds the face and helps funnel sound to the ears, but not toward the ear tufts. The two structures are completely independent of one another.
Identifying Birds With Ear Tufts
Birders can easily use ear tufts for proper bird identification. The general shape, size, position, length, color, and markings of ear tufts can help identify a bird species. The posture or motion of ear tufts can indicate key behaviors that offer more insights about the bird or also contribute to proper identification. Even young birds may show small ear tufts that can help with proper identification before they develop more mature markings.
Many owls are known for their ear tufts, but they are not the only birds to possess these distinctive features. Other birds with have ear tufts include the horned lark, stitchbird, ring-necked pheasant, double-crested cormorant, tufted puffin, eared grebe, and the royal, rockhopper, macaroni, and several other crested penguin species.