A bird’s eye view: Dec. 13, 2017

Published 3:18 pm Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A letter from a former Americus resident inquired, “How do the grackles know to return to two specific trees to roost at night on Oglethorpe Avenue in Americus?” The reader described this event has occurred for years. He and his 86-year-old sister have enjoyed the show as hundreds of birds
swirl and flutter around before landing in the trees at dusk.
The phrase “birds of a feather flock together” has been around since the mid-16th century. It’s meaning is clear: those that have similar tastes or even appearances assemble or seek each other out and form groups. Examples include soccer moms gathering at ball fields while politicians
seem to gather in the swamp.
The nouns school, herd and flock are used to describe groups of fish, cattle and birds respectively. But did you know that certain species of birds have further descriptive nouns to describe their groupings? We can have a parliament of owls, a charm of goldfinches or a murder of crows. A
large group of vultures is known as a kettle while a group of cardinals may be referred to as a Vatican. Whether it’s a raft of ducks, a dance of cranes or a plague of grackles, one thing is for sure; birds gather in groups or flocks for a reason.
During spring, birds are courting mates and raising baby birds usually, but not always, as a family group consisting of mom and dad. But after the breeding season is over some species will join together in flocks that can, at times, number into the hundreds of thousands even millions. Indeed,
John James Audubon described great flocks of the now extinct Passenger Pigeon with numbers so great that they blotted out the noon day sun as if an eclipse had occurred. The Passenger Pigeon’s droppings fell like snow, he described. Audubon mentioned the flight event lasted for three days.
Even if you are only a casual observer of the avian realm you probably know that birds have a reason for doing everything they do. And, as you would expect, there are reasons they form flocks. Let’s explore why. The primary reason birds flock together is because there is safety in numbers. Many eyes can spot a would be predator easier than just a single pair of eyes. Observe if you will a gaggle of Canada Geese that are feeding. While some birds are engaged in the process of foraging
others in the group are on lookout with heads and body held erect as though they were sentries on duty.
In the winter especially I have witnessed thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds and European Starlings form tight flocks in flight when a hawk or falcon poses a threat. The idea here is not to be on the periphery but instead go to the center of the flock. You are much less likely to be picked
off and eaten inside the flock than on the perimeter.
Flocking behavior also brings the benefit of finding food supplies. Groups of chickadees and titmice often forage for insects on the surface of leaves while accompanying nuthatches search for insects in the crevices of tree bark.
Some bird species form leks where the males gather to strut and show off for the females. It’s like the females go to a singles bar, which is the lek, and shop for the right mate. Birds that are communal nesters, like Purple Martins, and some wading birds, like egrets and herons, find advantages to flocking behavior also. These birds can come together to help ward off a predator that may try to dine on chicks in the nest. One spring I remember hearing my colony of Purple Martins constantly calling with a sound of urgency. I walked to their nesting site and discovered a rat snake climbing the pole that held the gourds.
And there is the advantage of aerodynamics of flight when flocking. Just watch the V-formation of ducks, geese and cranes to see what I mean. A strong flyer will often lead the flock with trailing birds taking advantage of the invisible wind dynamics thus making the flight easier for those that
follow. Yes, there are reasons birds do everything they do. And when you stop to think about it, everything they do is about survival. So, whether you are watching a squabble of gulls on the coast, a bouquet of warblers in the mountains or a scold of jays right in your own back yard, observe what they do and try to discern what the purpose is. Everything a bird does has a purpose and a reason for it.
Enjoy our wild birds and keep your cat indoors (where they belong).

Phil Hardy, a bird watcher and bird photographer, lives in Americus.