Posted on February 9th, 2010 Add a comment >>
I was walking along a snowmobile trail/snow-covered dirt road recently and I came upon a group of birds all nervously chattering, flitting from branch to branch, and staying somewhat close to one another. I walked off the trail into the coniferous woods(red spruce, balsam fir) and stood there for a moment to watch the birds from their point of view(in the woods). Whether I was absolutely invisible or the birds had other things on their minds, they started to gather around me…no not like in “The Birds” movie of Alfred Hitchcock fame, but of a more curious nature.
In this tight little group were black-capped chickadees, boreal chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, golden-crowned kinglets and a hairy woodpecker. Such a gathering would produce “ooh’s” and “ah’s” from any budding birder. I still ooh and ah over them but as someone who studies birds and works in the field watching them, I understand that they are illustrating what’s called “species flocking”.
In species flocking we find a group of birds that have literally flocked or gathered together for some beneficial reason. It’s made up of several different species and usually stays together as it moves, like a big bird-blob, through the woods.
This is a behavioral function that allows for several things. One is the fact that between them all, there are a bunch of eyes on the look out for food. As I stood quietly in the woods I followed a black-capped chickadee that worked a tree branch very close to my face. The bird crept along the branch, tipping upside down to view the underside of the branch. That’s where most of the overwintering spiders and insects are found.
But then the chickadee flew to the ground near my feet and carefully hopped along at the base of the trunk looking for food. At one point it stared, looking at the trunk…maybe for something moving?
Another benefit to flocking is many eyes looking for predators. Two birds(black-capped chickadee) in this group discovered me standing there and let out a scolding dee-dee-dee. This in turn alarmed the nearby boreal chickadee who let out a scolding call of its own. All the group was warned! The birds didn’t seem too concerned about me as they continued to feed and flow by me.
Here we see the old adage of “There is safety in numbers” put to use. Anyone of these birds can detect a predator and signal to the group what’s up. I find this fascinating and also curious because at any other time of the year you would never find this kind mixing of species. Migration would be the exception but these are not migratory birds. They stay in the Adirondacks all year long. Chickadees have their needs, nuthatches have their needs and the same for kinglets I guess.
But as this very difficult time of the year, birds tend to rely on each other for the finding of food resources, predator detection, and predator protection.
Another example of this behavior of flocking is when birds find a owl or a hawk in a tree and suddenly dozens of birds start scolding the predator and eventually chase it away. Again, safety in numbers.
As I sat there, slowly all the birds paraded through my little area of the woods and within minutes the chatter was gone. The flock moved on and soon the woods was quiet again. It sorta felt like a little wave approached then receded. A very hyper wave that is.
Photo: black-capped chickadee – Danielle Langlois/Wikipedia