On a rare, sunny day in late November, Karen Hansen from Samsara Yoga Center in Jamestown led a reflective walk for the Audubon Remembers event. It was one of those days that is truly a gift in late fall. The clouds and rain predicted never materialized. Bright blue sky was visible above, the warmth of the sun could be felt on our faces, and a soft breeze played with branches and fallen leaves. Karen drew attention to each of our five senses, slowing us down and sharply focusing on the world around us.
A few minutes into the walk, we stopped to bring awareness to our sense of hearing. Just as we stood still and closed our eyes, a flock of Black-capped Chickadees fluttered all around. We listened to their varied calls and knew they were moving in the bushes and small trees near us. We could even hear their wing beats as they flew just over our heads. What a delight! Listening beyond the chatter of these seemingly fearless chickadees, I could hear the quick, repeat call of a Tufted Titmouse and the gentle hammering of a Downy Woodpecker.
Further up the trail, the group stopped again to bring awareness to our sense of smell. As we breathed deeply, taking in the odors of the pine forest, another small flock of birds moved ahead. At first glance, I noticed just American Robins hopping among the berry-covered bushes. But looking closer, Brown-headed Cowbirds were mixed in too. In one moment, it seemed like birds were all around. In another moment, they were gone.
In late fall and winter, birds are not competing for territory to attract a mate and raise young. Gone are their early morning songs setting up “No Trespassing” signs. Their energy is no longer spent on reproduction but on survival. Staying warm, finding food and avoiding predators is critical in winter. Like the Beatles sang, these birds get by better with a little help from their friends.
But with a little bit of knowledge comes more questions. Why do birds flock together? In a mixed flock there is safety in numbers. In any given moment, some birds are looking for food and others are keeping watch for a passing hawk overhead or stalking cat below.
More questions arise. How do the birds coordinate who’s eating and who’s standing watch? And how do they decide where to go and when to move on? Scientists have studied mixed flocks and found that there are certain species that are leaders and other followers. In this region, Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice are leaders, having a wide variety of calls to communicate with others. The woodpeckers, nuthatches, creepers and kinglets are followers who tag along and take advantage of the group.
Other questions arise about food. What are they eating in these dormant months? Bernard Heinrich, a biologist at the University of Vermont, wondered about these winter birds, and how they fuel themselves in the cold winters. In his book Winter World, he describes his observations of the Golden-crowned Kinglet. It makes it through the toughest of winters by continuously eating. He examined the stomachs of several kinglets to find out they specialized in eating inchworms. While they may be hard for our human eyes to see, there are plenty of seeds and insects among the trees and bushes for birds to eat.
Observers also wonder if, with so many birds together, they compete for food? Not really. Each bird in these mixed flocks has their own niche. Even among the same tree, different species forage for food in different locations. Woodpeckers will look for insects among the bark of branches and trunks. White-breasted Nuthatches and Brown Creepers will also examine the bark, but in opposite directions. Nuthatches start high and go down headfirst while creepers start low and travel up. Chickadees and titmice glean insects off leaves and twigs. The kinglets will even hover like a hummingbird to find insects on the ends of the smallest twigs.
We often think we have to “help” the birds survive the winter by feeding them. But the seed we set out is just one of the many feeding locations birds visit. The birds among these mixed flocks are seeking seeds and insects in the wild as their main food source. Stocking bird feeders is still a good thing to do. It provides birds with another food source and it provides us with an easy observation station to be entertained and to learn.
We can also bundle up, step outside, watch, and wonder how the world works on sunny days and dreary ones. I repeated the reflective walk just a week later, on a gray December morning. I followed the same path but the experience was quite different. I still heard the raspy “Dee Dee” of chickadees and the nasal “Yank, Yank” of the nuthatch among the drips of rain. But they were farther off. No flocks around me. No robins. No sun. I saw the black and white flight of woodpeckers but they remained silent.
Winter flocks of birds can be interesting to watch. But they are there and then move on. When one surrounds you, it can feel like just as much of a gift as a sunny, warm winter day. If you like birds, you may like to participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count. This long-running citizen science project counts birds around the same time each year to get an idea of how they are doing. To participate in the December 14 Warren Christmas Bird Count, contact Don Watts at (814) 723-9125. To participate in the December 15. Jamestown count, contact Bill Seleen at (716) 386-3209.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1:00 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.