Many birds stand on one leg when resting on the ground (Clark 1973, Stiefel 1979; Necker 2010; see Liste). This behavior can best be observed in long-legged birds like storks, flamingos and herons but species with short legs, e.g. pigeons and ducks and some songbirds do it the same way. When standing on one leg birds may either rest, sleep or preen their plumage. Standing or resting on one leg requires contrived mechanisms to keep balance. The main issue of the present review is to find out how birds manage to keep equilibrium when standing on one leg (Functional Anatomy). Furthermore possible functions of this behavior are discussed (Meaning).


Functional Anatomy


Keeping balance in a biped vertebrate


Bipedal locomotion is found in humans and in birds. In humans the body is oriented vertically, i.e. in line with the line of gravity, and the center of gravity is located near the insertion of the legs. In birds the body is oriented more horizontally and the center of gravity is located rostral to the insertion of the hindlimbs (Fig. 1). This imposes special demands on keeping balance.


Birds standing on one leg: mechanisms and meaning

The legs of birds are different from bipedal humans in that they walk on their toes and there is an ankle joint which looks like the human knee but with a reversed angle. There is an upper leg with a femur and a lower leg with a tibia and a fibula. Upper leg and lower leg are connected by a knee joint (Fig. 2). The distal end of the tibia includes parts of tarsal bones. Therefore the lower leg is called tibiotarsus. The remaining tarsal elements fuse with metatarsal bones to make up the tarsometatarsus or tarsus (Baumel & Witmer 1993). The tarsus looks like a lower leg and this impression is furthered by the fact that upper and lower legs are normally hidden in the plumage. Tibiotarsus and tarsometatarsus are connected by the intertarsal joint (Fig. 2).


To keep balance when standing on both legs, the knees are flexed, which puts the knee joint near the center of gravity (Fig. 1). The antitrochanter (Fig. 2), a structure unique to birds, forms a joint with the trochanter of the femur which serves to prevent abduction of the femur and to absorb stresses which would otherwise act on the head of the femur (Hertel and Campbell 2007). The feet are positioned under the center of gravity which results in a stable balance of the body.


When resting on both legs, the femur is oriented nearly horizontally. A further unintended upward movement of the femur is prevented mechanically by the antitrochanter and the ligaments of the hip joint. The hip joint is now in a fixed position. Because of the high position of the knee, the center of gravity may shift to below the knee. This means that the body is suspended at the knee joint, which results in a very stable position that does not need much muscle activity to keep balance.


Standing on one leg


When resting, the supporting foot is set below the center of gravity (Figs. 3, 4). This position stresses the lateral ligaments of both knee and intertarsal joints (see arrows) but these ligaments are well developed in birds.


Long-legged birds: is there a “locking” or “snapping” mechanism?


In long-legged birds like storks, herons and flamingos (to cite well-known species) the center of gravity is far from the ground. The question arises whether these birds have specialized elements in their legs to avoid overbalance. It is said that flamingos are able to "lock" their intertarsal joint in the extended position by a snapping mechanism. This should prevent unintended flexion of this joint and thus overbalance, e.g. during sleep. Bell (1847) described in detail a snapping motion in the ostrich intertarsal joint. In a recent study this snapping mechanism in ostrichs has been confirmed (Schaller et al. 2009). However, the ostrich does not rest on one leg and there is so far no evidence of such a mechanism in other long-legged birds.



Most birds stand or sleep on one leg without having specializations in their legs. The leg is positioned in such a way that the body is well balanced without much additional muscle activity. Most long-legged birds like flamingos and storks have specializations in the hip joint and intertarsal joint which help stabilizing a body which is far from the ground. So far an often cited snapping mechanism has been demonstrated convincingly only in the ostrich, a long-legged bird who does not stand on one leg. Whether there is a similar mechanism in long-legged birds standing on one leg is unclear.  It seems that the extra-labyrinthine sense organ of equilibrium in the lumbosacral vertebral canal plays an important role in keeping balance when standing on one leg. This sense organ may even be a prerequisite for easily standing on one leg.


A useful function of standing on one foot with hiding the non-feathered part in the plumage is to reduce heat loss. Such a function is supported by recent quantitative behavioral observations. As to standing on one foot while preening or without hiding one foot in the plumage one might argue that the ability to stand easily on one foot is used even when there is no need for a reduction in heat loss, i.e. thermoregulation is probably an important but perhaps not the only function of standing on one leg. For another possible function discussed in detail, the reduction of muscle fatigue, there is so far no experimental support. The recent discovery in flamingos that standing on one leg results in a more stable body position than standing on both legs (see above: Functional anatomy/Standing on one leg) seems to be an attractive explanation why most birds prefer to rest on one leg independent of other functional implications like e.g. a role in temperature regulation.





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Fig. 6: Parasagittal section through the intertarsal joint of the flamingo. Arrows point to speciali-zations in tibiotarsus and tarsometatarsus (see text). After Stolpe (1932)
Fig. 7: Frontal view of the intertarsal joint of the flamingo showing flexion hook and flexion groove. After Langer (1859)

Fig. 3: Standing on one leg. Center and line of graivity as indicated. After Stolpe 1932

Fig. 4: Gray goose standing on one leg

Fig. 8: Model of the lumbosacral sense organ of equilibrium: Movements of the body result in movements of cerebrospinal fluid (yellow) in the vertebral canal which stimulates accessory lobes (AL). These lobes contain mechanosensitive neurons which are connected to the local motor system and to the cerebellum. After Necker 2006

The most detailed study on the functional organization of hindlimbs of birds, which also deals with the problem of standing on one leg is by Stolpe (1932). Fig. 6 shows a parasagittal section through the lateral condylus of the intertarsal joint of the flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber). There is a process in the tarsometatarsus which fits into a groove of the condylus of the tibiotarsus in the fully extended joint (see arrows in Fig. 6). Although this looks like a locking mechanism, Stolpe (1932) claims that it only prevents the joint from overstretching. Similar specializations are found in cranes and storks but not in herons (Stolpe 1932).



Fig. 1: Outline of a bird showing the center of gravity and the point of support. After Herzog 1968
Fig. 2: Bones of the leg of an eagle. Structures of interest are written out. After Herzog 1968


The possible function of standing on one leg


There are many speculations but few experimental studies or quantitative behavioral observations why birds stand on one leg. A couple of possible functions are published in Flamingo file (1991). The suggestion that there might be a dependence of standing on one leg on unihemispheric sleep, which occurs in some birds (Rattenborg 1999), has been disproved recently (Anderson et al. 2018). Two possible functions which have been tested by quantitative observations in recent publications (Anderson & Williams 2009; Bouchard & Anderson 2011; Anderson & Laughlin 2014) will be dealt with in detail: a thermoregulatory function and relaxation of muscle fatigue in the retracted leg.


Thermoregulatory function. Sleeping positions and the occurrence of sleeping on one leg among many orders of birds are described in detail by Stiefel (1979). When sleeping while standing on one leg the head is often hidden in the plumage on the back (Fig. 9). The head is usually positioned on the side of the ground foot or above the center of gravity. This supports a stable balance. The retracted leg is hidden in the breast feathers or under the wing. Hiding non-feathered parts of the body (mainly lower legs and the beak) in the plumage is a useful mechanism to reduce heat loss when sleeping. Reduction of heat loss applies also to e.g. ducks when standing on ice on one foot.




Reduction of muscle fatigue of the retracted leg. Humans tend to put the body weight on one leg when standing for longer times. This serves to reduce muscle fatigue in one leg. Accordingly, Clark (1973) suggested that standing on one leg in birds may serve a similar function. However, retraction of one leg needs muscle activity.  This is confirmed by an own observation of a resting nile goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus) whose retracted leg dropped again and again. However, when sleeping with its head on the back and with closed eyes, the leg was continuously hidden in the plumage. That leg retraction needs energy is supported by the casual own observation of a woolly-necked stork who fixed his retracted foot to the intertarsal joint of the stance leg (Fig. 12). There is no indication of structural or physiological mechanisms which may reduce muscle activity in the retracted leg as already noted by Clark (1973). During flight legs are retracted in a similar way as one leg during the unipedal stance. In a biochemical study it was shown that leg muscles involved in flight posture do not have specializations (McFarland & Meyers 2008).  However, one has to consider that hindlimb muscles of birds are close to the body (normally hidden in the plumage) which reduces the energy to lift the leg.


Humans of some tribes which use to rest on one leg (e.g. Australian Aborigines or African Bushmen) the retracted leg rests on the supporting leg  and equilibrium may be stabilized by leaning on a stick. A casual own obervation shows that storks may use the same technique (Fig. 12).




The question of reduction of muscle fatigue was addressed by Anderson & Williams (2009) in flamingos by measuring the latency of initiating a forward movement. This latency was longer following resting on one leg as compared to the latency when resting on two legs. The authors conclude that this result discounts the possible function of reducing muscle fatigue or enhancing predatory escape.


In most bird species there is no preference of the side (left/right) they use for standing on one leg (Randler 2007; Anderson & Williams 2009; Anderson & Laughlin 2014) and there is an about equal use of left and right leg in individual flamingos (Anderson & Williams 2009). However, it would be interesting to know whether there is a regular shift from one leg to the other leg in order to reduce muscle fatigue in both legs. However, it is not clear whether a reduction of muscle fatigue of the supporting leg or the retracted leg is intended. Given that retracting one leg is energy consuming (see above) one might assume that changing the retracted leg may serve reduction of muscle fatigue of the retracted leg.

Fig. 9: Sleeping flamingo
Fig. 10A: Whooper swan, preening while standing on one foot; note that the left leg is stretched backwards
For further examples see Fotos

Fig 10B: Mute swan on the water with left leg stretched backwards


Fig. 12: Woolly-necked stork fixing the lifted leg to the intertarsal joint of the stance leg

The legs of birds are an important site of heat exchange (Steen & Steen 1965; Dawson & Whittow 2000). In a warm environment heat of the body is dissipated via the legs. In cold ambient temperature blood supply to the legs is reduced and there is a counter-current heat exchange of the blood vessels leaving or entering the body: cold venous blood coming from the legs is warmed up by the warm arterial blood running to the legs which itself is cooled down (Kahl 1963; Mitgard 1989). This means that in the cold heat loss via the legs is strongly reduced (amounting to 10 per cent at -10° C; Steen & Steen 1965).


In recent investigations it was shown that flamingos spend more time standing on one leg in the water (facilitates heat loss) as compared to standing on one leg on the ground. Furthermore, flamingos stand more often on one leg at cool temperatures (Anderson & Williams 2009; Bouchard & Anderson 2011; Anderson & Laughlin 2014). These quantitative behavioral observations support a thermoregulatory function of standing on one leg. There are, however, observations which show that in the range of 8 to 19 °C, i.e. at low temperatures, the incidence of standing on one leg is reduced (Harker and Harker 2010). The authors argue, that the birds tend to rest/sleep only at higher temperatures. For a detailed discussion of the temperature/rest/sleep topic on standing on one leg see Anderson 2016.


Standing or resting on one leg does not necessarily mean an inactive state. Birds may practice intense preening while standing on one leg (Fig. 10A). Even aggressive behavior to neighbors was seen in flamingos while standing on one leg (own observations). Often resting birds just lift one leg partially without hiding it in the plumage (see Fotos). In preliminary own observations at the zoo of Dortmund it is shown that lifting one leg partially occurs more often at higher temperatures (27 C) than at lower temperatures (20 C). On the other hand complete retraction  of one leg was observed more often at the lower temperatures (Fig. 11). While hiding the non-feathered parts of the leg in the plumage serves heat conservation a partially retracted leg cannot have such a function and supports the assumption that standing on one leg does not exclusively serve a thermoregulation.

Fig. 11A: Sleeping flamingos: Occurence of standing on both legs (no leg retracted), with one leg retracted partially and one leg retracted completely.  Blue column: 20 °C (observed in 2008); red column. 27 °C (observed in 2013).


Fig. 11B: Percentage of standing on one leg with the leg retracted only partiallly. Left column: two observations (20 and 23 °C); right column: two observations (27 and 31 °C)


According to Stolpe (1932) there are specializations in the hip joint of long-legged birds which support a stable position when resting on one leg. There is a lateral comb in the trochanter with a deepening. When standing, the body lowers in between the upper legs and the antitrochanter is lodged in the deepening of the trochanter comb. This prevents the body from forward overbalance and stabilizes the body against rotation towards the non-supported side when standing on one leg. A similar mechanism has been described by Hertel & Campbell (2007). This seems to be an important mechanism to stabilize the body of long-legged birds and to reduce muscle activity.


In a recent study with flamingo cadavers (Chang & Ting 2017) it was found that standing on one leg as shown in Fig. 3 (adduction of about 20 degrees from the vertical) results in a very stable support of the body. Fig. 5 shows schematically the experiments performed by Chang and Ting. In a resting bird the femur is oriented nearly horizontally, i.e. the hip joint is maximally flexed. The knee joint forms an angle of about 90 degrees (Fig. 5, 1) which is due to a tibial crest (Baumel and Witmer 1993) at its maximal extension: downward pressure rostral to the knee does not result in further extension (Fig. 5, 2). Flexion of the knee joint is still possible as can be seen from a backward tilt of the body during caudal downward pressure (Fig. 5, 3). Altogether this results in a stable position of the body since the center of mass is located rostral to the knee joint („unidirectional stay apparatus“ after Chang and Ting). Further experiments of Chang and Ting (2017) showed that the body remains quite stable when simulating a one leg stance with an adducted leg (Fig. 5, 4) wheras it becomes unstable when simulating a two-leg stance with the leg aligned vertically (Fig. 5, 5). This means that the one leg stance seems to be very stable mechanically and thus probably needs few muscular activity.




Fig. 5: Sketch of the experiments performed by Chang und Ting (2017).

Upper row: pressure exerted rostral to the knee (arrow) has no effect on body position (2). Pressure exerted caudally results in a backward body tilt (3). F - Femur

Lower row: normal one-leg stance (4) means a stable body position which becomes unstable with vertical alignement of the leg (5)

There are other specializations in the intertarsal joint of long-legged birds. As shown in Fig. 6 by dashed lines, in the mid-sagittal plane there is a flexion hook of the tarsometatarsus which fits into a flexion groove of the tibiotarsus. These structures have been described already by Langer (1859) in flamingos (Fig. 7) and marabus. Langer (1859) states that these elements prevent rotation of the intertarsal joint and that this works even in the fully extended condition. However, these structures are not able to prevent the intertarsal joint from unintended flexion.

Sensory control of keeping balance when standing on one leg


Keeping balance normally involves several sensory systems: the sense organ of equilibrium located in the inner ear (labyrinth), deep receptors located in muscles and joints as well as the eye. In birds there is an additional sense organ of equilibrium in the lumbosacral region of the vertebral column (Fig. 8; Necker 2006). This sense organ acts directly on the motor system of the legs. It has been shown that the labyrinth has only a weak influence on the motor system in resting birds, so this lumbosacral organ may be used primarily when moving or resting on the ground. Preening on one leg (see Fig. 9) with vigorous movements of the head would impose heavy demands on the function of the labyrinth. Furthermore, when sleeping on one leg with closed eyes this sense organ is also no more available for controlling balance.