Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 4, 2008

A Band of Peeps

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:07 pm

 My wife often accuses me of having only three jokes in my act. I think I actually have four, but that is beside the point. One of my favorite gags is to point out to a nature walk audience that you never see just one Common Tern. Why? they ask – expecting some pontifical answer. I answer that it is a well known fact that “one good tern deserves another.”  If, after the groans die down, we spot a solitary tern in the distance I quickly point out that the individual must be one of those bad birds – you know, the kind that have taken a tern for the worse.

  My sole reason for bringing this up is to state that there are plenty of other birds that “deserve” each other besides Terns.  This is a bad segue, I admit, but it got us to the point and it’s too late to go back now. 

  A classic example to illustrate this concept is the Chickadee (see above), that black & white little dynamo of the winter woods.  You rarely just see one Chickadee. About the time you hear one (like this one: Chickadee Call) and locate him dangling precariously from some branch, you’ll spot another one and then a third and… It doesn’t end there. Pretty soon you’ll also see a few Downy Woodpeckers (see here), a Cardinal or two, and possibly a Brown Creeper close by. Yellow-rumped Warblers and even Tree Sparrows may put in an appearance. In short, one Chickadee sighting nearly always translates into a band of assorted peeps.

 I was in the midst of just such a gathering yesterday. Beginning with a silent wood, a gathering of three or four tweeting chickadees began to fill the air and flit about me. A pair of cautious cardinals then joined into the fray as did a limb-tapping Downy Woodpecker. I managed to record some of this mingling of avian talents (listen here) before the whole troop moved deeper into the thicket and left me, once again, in silence.

  No, I don’t have a pun to go along with this phenomenon because my other two jokes happen to be about beer and geese. It would be a cardinal sin to attempt one anyway. I do have a legitimate explanation for these Chicka-gatherings,however. Small winter birds tend to forage together for the sake of mutual safety. As an assemblage of alert eyes, the gang can alert each other to the presence of a Cooper’s Hawk before things take a tern for the worse. The whole thing is mutually beneficial for all but is somewhat unintentional. Each bird watches out for itself, so it is not a true colonial thing, but they all seem to like being in each others company. Chickadees can be considered as the glue around which these wandering feeding flocks congregate.

 I know what you are thinking. “Birds of a feather flock together,” right? Here we have a band of brothers pulling together for the common good. Well, there is another way to look at this – simply stated as “the more the merrier.”  Flocking increases the chance that your neighbor will be eaten before you are. All the birds are thinking this but they have the decency not to bring it up- otherwise things would “tern” ugly.

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