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Anatomy of a Feeding Flock

November 16, 2012

The currency of fall and winter birding is the feeding flock. In the midst of them, it feels like no birding experience can compare to the excitement and sense of possibility. Walking through a silent stretch of woods with no feeding flock reminds you that life is brief and full of pain.

The principle of the feeding flock is simple.  Multiple species and individual passerines, freed from the hormonal urges to destroy one another for territorial real estate, join forces to beat back the beast of winter  as a super-team canvassing the available habitat for anything edible and shouting down predators with the combined force of a thousand chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dees.  The sum of this group is so much greater than the parts.  It’s the Avian Avengers, the feathered Fantastic Four, the seasonal Superfriends.  Call it what you like, but within that little group of birds, should you come across one, is the potential for a daylist fluffing menagerie of dicky-birds and the possibility, however long, of some sort of bizarre passerine vagrant from parts farther afield.  The point is that it’s always worth while to stop and check these rolling parties out.  You never know what you might find.

Depending on where you are in the world the makeup of these flocks changes.  Here in North Carolina, the main driver of the group, and the species most likely to respond to pishing or Screech-Owl calls is the pugnacious Tufted Titmouse.    Parids, with their flexible pallet and inquisitive natures, are often the core of winter feeding flocks.  In some places there are chickadees, and the Carolina Chickadee is present and active around here, but they pale in comparison with the thunder Titmice are capable of bringing down on an innocent birder.

In comparison, the Carolina Chickadees around here are shrinking violets.  Or, at least, they’re less apt to put themselves in a position to be readily photographed.  Perhaps that means they’re socially savvier.

After the Titmice, the loudest species are the Carolina Wrens.  There’s scarcely a sound any organism can make that won’t at least draw in a pair of curious wrens.  And if you can get them going, well, the party has only just begun.

Once the Titmice and the Wrens get good and riled up, then the other birds begin to arrive.  Yellow-rumped Warblers, not nearly as aggressive as the aforementioned birds, but always ready to rumble.

Kinglets, both Ruby and Golden-crowned, who make up for their diminutive size with the attitudes of birds three times their size.

And once the usuals are coming in, that’s when you look to the back of the flock for the unusual or shy birds.  I usually hear Brown Creepers before I see them, which is akin to a magic trick to the older, hearing impaired, birders with which I’m nearly always paired on Christmas Bird Counts.

As big as woodpeckers are, they’re surprisingly shy for this sort of all-bird unruly mob.  This is particularly true of the recently arrived Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.  This largish flock of birds contained no fewer than three Sapsuckers, though they generally hung around the back.

If you’re really lucky you might turn up a few Hermit Thrushes and a Blue-headed Vireo in one of these flocks, not to mention the outside possibility that a vagrant western warbler is tucked in there somewhere, just waiting for the persistently pishing birder to take a crack at it.

That’s reason enough to give those feeding flocks the attention they deserve.


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