Well, maybe not exactly a true flash mob, but certainly the avian equivalent was in full swing as I left the house yesterday morning. Stepping into the garden before setting off on a birding walk around Deer Lake, I was immediately aware that something was up. In the trees behind the house, a very agitated flock of small birds was calling and scolding and acting very excitedly. Such a mob scene usually indicates a predator is present, and often it’s an owl.
The centre of all the action was a western redcedar tree where I soon located the target of all the excitement and distress – a Barred Owl perched about 15m off the ground, staring down with its large, dark eyes as I made my way toward it. I could almost imagine its irritation at me now joining the mob. It was having enough trouble with the chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets, and robins that were kicking up a racket all around it.
Mobbing, as this behaviour is called, is practised by many birds. In forested areas, it’s mostly small birds in mixed species flocks like yesterday, and sometimes in single species flocks that gather around a predator in an attempt to drive it off, identify its location for other birds, and perhaps teach younger birds to recognize predators.
Chickadees are frequently the noisy instigators, and other birds join in. Some keep their distance, while others will actually fly at the bird to peck at it in an attempt to get it to move on – a risky strategy. Sometimes it works, and at other times the predator hangs in until the excitement subsides. Yesterday’s mob was successful. When I returned a couple of hours later, the owl had left.
In open areas, and frequently in nesting season, crows, blackbirds and swallows are often the lead mobsters, and their targets are our resident Red-tailed and Cooper’s Hawks.
Yesterday’s flash mob didn’t require texting, or social media to organize, just a group of noisy, frenzied birds to send the message out through the woods for others to join in, and get that owl out of there. As you’re walking our parks, listen out for these noisy gatherings. It’s not always an owl that’s the target, but sometimes cats, raccoons and squirrels will prompt the same behaviour.
For a full list of birds I saw around the lake yesterday click here.
The observant among you may notice that the owl picture above was not taken in a redcedar tree. I couldn’t get a good photograph yesterday; it was just too dark for my camera. I photographed the owl pictured above this spring, less than 50 m from the site of yesterday’s action. It could well have been the same bird. There is a pair in residence in the area.