Meet the Flockers (Flocking Behavior)

Photo Group
Bald Eagle (top) and Snow Geese (bottom)
Photo by: 
Mary Nemecek and Jim Braddock

Birds of a feather, flock together. Late summer and fall is the time that we really begin to notice large groups of birds (flocks). I know that I was taught at a young age, that the birds are gathering up to head south. The truth is that birds “flock” for many reason and each has its advantages.

Obviously, there is strength in numbers. The more eyes you have searching for food and predators, the better. If one finds food, hopefully there will be enough for everyone. If a predator comes along, there should be enough “bodies” to increase you chance of survival.

Have you ever watched a large flock move “as one big unit?” The larger you look, the less appealing you will be to a predator. They can also confuse predators by suddenly splitting into several smaller groups and darting off in different directions. The disadvantage is that the more visible you are, the more attention you draw to yourself.

The flocks that get the least favorable press are the giant blackbird flocks of fall and winter. If you have ever been unfortunate enough to have one of these mass of feathers roost in a patch of trees near you, you know what I mean. The behavior is fascinating, but the noise and the mess are horrific. I’ve seen old movies of thousands and thousands of grackle, red-winged blackbirds, cowbirds and others being killed in a split second in the name of “animal control.” This occurred regularly back in the 50s and 60s with much of it happening right here in the Midwest.

Waterfowl species like the Canada Goose are famous for flocking. I like to watch a group of geese as they graze. The next time you get the chance to watch them, try to keep count of how many heads are up and how many are down eating at the same time. Hopefully everyone will get a chance to eat as well as watch for predators.

Not all flocks are comprised of the same species of birds. It is common, especially a little later in fall, to find mixed foraging flocks. These feeding flocks can contain a dozen or so species but generally center around a specific group of birds (usually chickadees). Chickadees are known to be very good at finding food. Let’s follow them!

The name of the game is survival. Whether it is for migrating, feeding, mate attraction or just sleeping at night, you can bet that the flockers have it all figured out.

By Mark McKellar

SUMMER 2005