Dear Bird Folks,
This morning my backyard was quiet. Then all of a sudden there were birds everywhere, drinking out of the water container on my deck. I saw Blue Jays, cardinals, titmice, chickadees, robins, and a woodpecker. They took turns drinking and then they all suddenly left, as if the tour guide had called them back to the bus. Do birds of a different feather usually flock together, and if so, why?
– Todd, Brewster, MA
I typically try to keep this column simple and gear it towards casual bird watchers. But every once in a while, in an effort to expand the readers’ avian vocabulary, I’ll toss in a technical term or two. With that in mind, I’d like to suggest that the ornithological name for your deck’s “water container” is birdbath. Don’t feel bad for not knowing this highly specialized word; many of my customers don’t know it either. All day long folks ask me about “bird waterers.” Waterers? That’s not even a word. At least I don’t think it’s a word, but I’d better check it out to be sure. I’ve heard that scholars in universities all over the world are constantly searching this column for the slightest mistake. Good luck to them. This column is always 100% mistakeless.
Birds are in many ways like people; sometimes they like to be alone and other times they are ready to party down. Spring is when mated pairs isolate themselves from the maddening crowd. But in the fall many species become highly sociable and form flocks. Flocks may consist of a few birds, several hundred or thousands. Forming a flock provides birds with many advantages. But like so many things in life, flocks also have a few disadvantages.
By flying in a V-formation, a flock of Canada Geese is able to use less energy than what a single goose uses flying on its own. A flock is also better at locating food. But protection is the biggest advantage in joining a flock. For example, a hawk could easily pick off a lone starling, but the same hawk is liable to become cross-eyed if it tried to focus on a single starling flying in the middle of a fast-moving flock. In addition, a flock has lots more eyes to help watch for danger, while a single bird only has two. (Unless the single bird is a peacock, then things are about even.)
Flocking also has some disadvantages. Diseases are more easily spread when birds are in close contact. (This is why smart birds never ride the subway during flu season.) Then there is the food thing. A flock of, say, robins may be able find food more easily than a single robin can, but the group will also eat more food and will eat it more quickly. As a result, the more aggressive robins will eat their fill first, leaving the scraps for the slower birds.
To avoid fighting over the same food source, the more sensible birds will travel in a “mixed flock” (or as you say, “birds of a different feather”). A mixed flock, as the name implies, consists of several different species. A common mixed flock around here frequently is made of titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets and even a few woodpeckers. These flocks still have all the extra eyes needed to watch for danger, but the advantage they have over a homogeneous flock is they don’t all compete for the same food in the same way. Each species has its own unique foraging method. So they aren’t really competing and thus they all get along. It’s important to keep in mind that a mixed flock isn’t a bunch of random birds that just happened to show up at the same location at the same time. It’s a real flock, with a real leader. And what species is typically the leader? I’ll give you a hint: It’s our state bird. That’s right, the chickadees rule the flock…once again proving why chickadees are the best birds ever.
Also referred to as a “nuclear species,” the leader birds don’t act like drill sergeants and tell the others what to do. They are more like sentinels, keeping an eye out for predators, and will quickly sound the alarm at the slightest hint of trouble. In addition to chickadees, another one of these sentinel birds is the Tufted Titmouse. This one totally surprises me. I get the chickadee thing, but the titmouse? They are like the Barney Fifes of the bird world. With their big goofy black eyes, titmice appear to be in a constant state of fright and confusion. However, my facial profiling is evidently wrong. According to some studies, those dopey, Fife-ish titmice are actually better at spotting trouble than even chickadees are. (Come on, titmice? Really?) The leader birds are so good at their jobs that even non-members of the mixed flock, such as cardinals and jays, will also come to eat and drink when they know the chickadees and titmice are on duty. (Titmice?)
About your birds suddenly disappearing, as if called back to the bus by a “tour guide” (great analogy, by the way), I’m betting the catalyst was a hawk. Hawks love to eat feeder birds. If there’s the slightest hint of a hawk hunting in the area, the birds will amscray. But don’t worry, Todd, after a while the hawk will move on and the birds will return. In the meantime, keep your birdbath (aka, water container or waterer) fresh and clean. As for me, I’m not worried about the world’s scholars finding anything wrong with this column. I think they’ll be too busy trying to figure out what “amscray” means.