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You may have heard birds fighting in your garden but by the time you have looked out the window they have calmed down. This is very common for birds to have quick, short fights, but the way they fight is interesting.

Birds use their wings, legs, feet, claws, and bills to fight. Fights are short but high-intensity between birds of the same species. Because of the protection of their feathers and skin, most fights are not life-threatening. Some species use counter-singing or visual displays instead of fighting.

Birds can be vicious when fighting but as the fights are short-lived and non-threatening most are happy to engage others.

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Swan fighting


Most birds will use their wings, legs, and bills as their weapons. What they use depends on the bird. Lapwings and the spur-winged goose have wings that are equipped with a sharp claw at the wrist. This can be used in fights with other birds of the same or other species, but less against reptiles or mammals.

Because some larger birds have huge wings these can be used to great effect when fighting or even scare off a predator. If you have ever got too close to a swan or one of its young then you will know how frightening the wind coming off a swan can be as it runs towards you.

Legs and feet

As with the claws on some birds wings, many have claws on their toes that are used in fights between males. Starlings are vicious when they fight, and can often be seen trying to dig their claws into the opponent’s eyes.

The ostrich, a large bird, uses the larger claw on its toes to cut enemies. Due to their size, an ostrich is scary even for a human, especially when you see how sharp their claws can be. The harpy eagle has a talon that is razor-sharp and with a length up to 4 inches which is the same as a brown bears claw.


Although many bills are spear-like and share they aren’t used in this way. When a bird is fighting the bill is generally used to grab the enemy on the neck, bill, leg, or wing. This can stop the opponent from attacking by using that part of its body, leading to some prolonged squabbles where one refuses to let go.

This also happens high up in the nest where two birds can often be seen and heard fighting before falling to the ground with their beaks gripped tightly together.

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Talon grappling

Some birds of prey use their talons to grab onto another birds feet when in mid-air. This generally sends both birds hurtling towards the ground. If one of them does not give up and let go then they may both end up dying in the impending crash.

Talon grappling happens when one bird swops down at a steep angle behind the bird it wants to attack. They open their talons to grab the bird and the defender rolls onto its back to meet the attacker with its talons. If the talons reach the soft body parts then the fight can be over very quickly.

As they start to plummet to the ground they spin in a circular motion. This may only last for one or two twists before the feet become unlocked. However, if neither will give up then they can fall a lot farther, sometimes into the ground.


Young birds in the nest often fight which can even lead to siblicide. Egrets, herons, owls, and pelicans are some young birds that will push others out of the nest. The masked booby and Nazca booby will start to peck their siblings once they hatch, and don’t stop until it’s either dead or they have rolled it out of the nest.

This also occurs in species where brood parasitism is common. Brood-parasitism is when another species lays its eggs in another nest without them knowing. Once the eggs have hatched, they may attack and kill the rightful young of the nest. Honeyguides have hooks on their mandibles which they use to kill, while others will use their heels to trample the other nestlings.

Cuckoos are brood parasites and will often kick others out of the nest. Some species who practice siblicide will use their hooked bills to kill their rivals.

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Parrots fighting

Why do birds fight?

Birds may fight to protect their territory and their nest. In months where there is less food, birds are more territorial and more fights happen. Mockingbirds are extremely territorial and will attack anything that comes close to their nest. I was once attacked by a magpie that left blood streaming down my arm.

Birds are different from mammals as they don’t generally have the same power and life-ending capability as a large mammal would. Whereas mammals will try to stay away from fights as they know it could potentially be their last, birds will often engage in fights.

Their plumage and scale skin generally protects them from most scratches and scrapes they will get from fighting. Because they have their bill and claws to protect them, birds can fight with few life-threatening consequences.

Because most fights happen between members of the same species we can see that this is often done to find a mate. Most fights happen in the breeding season for the individual species of bird.

Fighting is normally done between males. Male sparrows will fight other males for the right to mate. Many birds show dominance over others to attract females, but because sparrows are common in gardens we can often see them squabbling.

Fights are generally short but high-intensity that happen quite often. However, not all species fight.

How do birds settle disputes without fighting?

While some species often seem to be fighting, not all species settle their disputes in this way. Many birds will settle their differences by singing or by visual displays.

Counter-singing happens when individuals or breeding groups respond to a rival’s song. The quality and quantity of the song during these ‘sing-off’s’ can settle disputes while also sending messages about territory and status.

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