A Gathering of Winter Flocks

A Gathering of Winter Flocks

This winter I’ve noticed a variety of winter bird species gathering in flocks at my feeder. Each year I expect to see several dark eyed juncos scouring the grass under our feeder. This year they arrived in late fall, right on time from nesting grounds in northern Canada. If robins and blue birds are avian harbingers of spring, then the dark eyed junco is a harbinger of winter. They’re ground feeders, and when I refill the bird feeder, I make sure to scatter some of the precious seeds on the ground for these visitors. A few weeks back I counted more than 15 of them at the same time, which struck me as unusual.

During the first week of January, I counted 20 mourning doves under the feeder. Like the dark eyed juncos, mourning doves are also ground feeders. We have at least one pair that nest near our house, and I see them frequently, but 20 all at once was a real surprise to me.

Recently, finches have gathered at the feeder. We typically see gold finches year-round, but this winter there were more than 10 house finches stopping by daily to sample our fare. The male has a splash of red on its head and chest making it stand out. They are my favorite finch.

So what is going on this winter? It has been colder than usual this month, and we’ve had snow on the ground for several weeks. But why have our winter bird species been flocking together in what appears to be greater numbers?

I sent an email to Andy Rzeznikiewicz of the Connecticut Audubon Society to ask if he too had noticed an abundance of flocking birds this year. Andy is well known in northeast Connecticut for his vast knowledge of birds and other wildlife. He is the land manager for the Audubon Society Center in Pomfret and conducts programs for society members and the public. He is also the land steward for the Wyndham Land Trust. He emailed me right back and said  “This is normal. You either are just noticing them more, or you’re feeding stuff they really like the proper way. Glad you’ve seen a lot.”

I will admit I have been focused on our winter birds more this year and have been vigilant about keeping the feeder and suet baskets well-stocked. This year I started a journal of nature signs around our place and my desk has a good view of our feeder. The birds are always right there for me to see, so yes, I have been noticing them more.

Winter is when birds typically gather in flocks for safety reasons. Smaller birds, like the house finch, black-capped chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, dark-eyed junco and tufted titmouse that frequent our yard are also a meal for winged predators like hawks.

With more eyes keeping a lookout for danger the likelihood of alarm means greater survival. Chickadees in particular are known for sounding the danger alarm that benefits all species gathering together. Their rapidly repeated series of short “see-see-see-see” calls when danger is near will cause all to freeze momentarily, be alert and, if need be, to flee.

Even with greater safety in numbers sometimes the predator wins. I realized this unending law of nature last week when I went to fill the feeder. The recent snow was free of mammal tracks and only the tiny prints of the ground feeding birds were visible near the feeder. On the snow were several large feathers of a tufted titmouse, a clear indication one was snatched while at the feeder. The lack of cat or fox tracks could only mean a flying predator, possibly one of the red-shouldered hawks nesting in the woods near our property.

I wonder how many birds were at or near the feeder when the tufted titmouse was taken. Flocking in greater numbers does help with more birds to sound the danger alarm. It also means there are more individual targets for the predator, hopefully diluting the risk of any one bird being snatched by the predator.

Some birds flock together year round for safety. Our region’s Canada geese and wild turkey are two I see using safety in numbers mode of survival during every season. If you’ve ever watched Canada geese as they graze, you’ll notice there are always one or two with their heads up, scanning the area for danger.

Baby chicks of the ground nesting wild turkey are prone to predation, so they have evolved to be ready to leave the nest soon after hatching. Even though the turkey hen only lays one or two eggs a day, she doesn’t start incubating the clutch until she has a dozen. This ensures the eggs all hatch around the same time. The chicks are up and able to follow the mother hen away from the nest to safety soon after hatching. Typically two to three hens will group together with their combined hatchlings, or “poults,” and perhaps one or more yearling hens. As they wander in search of nourishing insects and seeds, the lead adult hen frequently scans the horizon to see if a predator is near and a trailer hen maintains the rear guard, on the lookout and vigilant to danger.

As winter months slide into spring the preference for company and safety in numbers changes with birds pairing off to start the nesting season. Three will be a crowd. The males will be guarding their territory and driving off any trespassers with an angry fluttering of wings and loud calls. The dawn chorus of nesting songbirds in May is as much a territorial call to keep away as it is a love song to attract a mate.

There is plenty of winter left before the spring nesting season begins. Until then I’ll be enjoying the many congregations at my feeder and backyard. Winter is a perfect time to observe and discover again the amazing wildlife and birdlife we have right outside our door.

Information for this column was gleaned from the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, Volume I by Donald Stokes.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in and explored the region for 40 years and can be reached at bill@tlgv.org


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