The strength of the flock: Why some birds fly together
For some area birds, winter is a time to come together.
You can see a flock of birds at any time of year, but for some species, the urge to congregate is strongest in winter. Starlings are among the better-known flock-formers at this time of year: Their winter flocks can number far into the thousands and can cause problems for humans through droppings they leave behind at roosting sites and some of their foraging habits. But they’re not the only birds that feel the need for uber-companionship in winter. Robins frequently gather in large winter flocks. So do blackbirds. So do turkeys. These large flocks aren’t always problematic: In some instances, this “flocking” characteristic can create good nature viewing opportunities. Sometimes, it can lead to a good photo opportunity.
There are several theories about why some of our non-migratory bird species gather into large winter flocks and there’s likely some validity to all these reasons. For starters, the old cliché is true – there is safety in numbers. A predator that may attack a single bird is not nearly as eager to take on a large group. Also, the more eyes there are watching for predators, the earlier one can be detected and a successful escape by all can be made. Also, a group of birds may be able to mob or confuse an attacker to the point that the predator becomes discouraged and leaves.
Foraging can be another benefit. As is the case with watching for predators; the more eyes that are looking for food, the easier it is to find it.
Warmth is yet another advantage. Whether they’re huddled on tree branches or grouped together on the ground – a large mass of birds can provide each other benefits of body heat and wind protection that a solitary bird isn’t able to enjoy.
As is the case with a number of things you find in nature, these advantages are balanced by some disadvantages. Though foraging en masse has its benefits, there’s also a down side. It may be easier for a large group of birds to find food, but that food disappears much quicker when being consumed by a large flock.
There’s also a disadvantage to the protection aspect. A large flock is much easier to spot than a single bird. While no attacker is willing to take on the entire flock, the large flock is may be obvious enough to attract several predators that are willing to lurk in the vicinity waiting for weak or unsuspecting members to lag behind the flock.
Yet another problem is disease. Many avian diseases are spread through direct contact or fecal matter; both of which occurs in abundance when large numbers of bird congregate for an extended period of time.
Regardless of why birds congregate in winter, the fact that they do gather, coupled with a lack of foliage that increases viewing opportunities, is another reason why this is a great time to get outside and enjoy nature. Your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office has information about nearby Department areas that may have wildlife viewing opportunities. Information about what you can see in Missouri’s outdoors in winter, and where you can go to see it, can also be found at mdc.mo.gov.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.