Crest in Bird Anatomy and Plumage

Crested Pigeon

Richard Taylor/Flickr/Used With Permission

A crest is a prominent tuft of feathers on the crown of a bird's head. The appearance of the crest can vary greatly among different birds, and there are many types of bird crests on all different species, from penguins and raptors to songbirds and hummingbirds.

Pronunciation

KREHST
(rhymes with best, fest, dressed, and chest)

Types of Crests

The size, shape, color, length, and thickness of crests can vary greatly. Some birds have just a very small and subtle crest, such as the ruby-crowned kinglet, while others have longer, thicker, more prominent crests like the northern cardinal or blue jay. The crest may form just a short mound or could be a pointed triangle shape, or it may even be a longer, streamer-like structure.

In some species, such as the double-crested cormorant or the erect-crested penguin, a pair of crests are located on the sides of the head rather than directly on the crown. Some crests are very thin and may only be a few feathers, such as the wobbly crest of the California quail or Indian peafowl. When a crest is exceptionally prominent, it is a distinguishing field mark and may be part of the bird's name, such as the sulfur-crested cockatoo or crested tit.

The crest may be the same color and general texture as the rest of the feathers on the bird's head, such as on the phainopepla, or it may be a different color and texture altogether, such as the grey-crowned crane.

Most birds show crests year-round, but in other species, it is part of their breeding plumage, and the crest will disappear after the breeding season as the bird molts. Double-crested cormorants, for example, only show crests when they are breeding, but in fall and winter lack any noticeable crest. Many ducks with prominent crests, however, keep those structures throughout the year, such as the tufted duck and the smew.

What a Crest Isn't

Some birds have features that may appear similar to crests but are actually very different in structure and composition. The most common crest-like features include:

  • Comb: A fleshy, upright structure on a bird's head. The size, shape, and color of combs can vary, but they are all fleshy growths and are restricted to just the top of a bird's head. The red junglefowl, some pheasant species, and domestic roosters all have combs.
  • Casque: A hard growth on the head, composed of keratin. Casque size and shape also varies, and these structures may show scratches, chips, or other wear over time. All cassowary species show casques.
  • Wattles: Fleshy growths that vary in size, shape, and color on a bird's head, face, and neck. Wattles on the head may seem similar to crests but are not confined to the top of the head. Muscovy ducks and wild turkeys show extensive wattles.
  • Ear Tufts: These crest-like structures are on the sides of the head, but are too far from the top of the head to be considered true crests. Many different owls have ear tufts, which, despite their name, are not ears at all and have no effect on the bird's hearing.

How Birds Use Crests

Birds are often able to control their crests, and crest position can be an indication of a bird's emotions or stress. Birds may raise or lower a crest for a courtship display or show aggression, dominance, or submission. The stronger the movements of the crest, the stronger the emotions that cause the action. Some birds may also use their crests as part of communication, signaling their intentions for mating or defense, or raising an alert to other members of the flock.

Crests as Identification Field Marks

A crest can be a useful field mark for birders. When using a crest for bird identification, note the color, shape, and length of the crest, as well as its thickness and whether it appears to be just a few feathers or the full crown. Also, note how the bird uses the crest and what positions the crest has in a bird's relaxed posture versus more aggressive or prominent displays. In some species, the crest is so significant and prominent that it can be a diagnostic field mark, such as the large, colorful crest of the male wood duck or the bold, half-circle crest of the male hooded merganser.