Birds of a Feather….

…indeed do flock together. While many of our smaller birds in winter gather in mixed-species flocks to forage, and collectively keep their eyes out for predators, there are other species which, for the most part, stick with their own kind during the winter months. Perhaps the most obvious of these are our Northwestern Crows, which not only spend their days in extended family groups in their neighbourhood hang-outs, but return each evening to the huge communal roost along Still Creek. But there are others too, mostly smaller birds, that are notable for hanging out exclusively with their close feather-mates.

You’ve probably noticed the huge swirling flocks of Pine Siskins, small members of the finch family that are here in huge numbers this winter. Feeding on our native red alders, these flocks are almost entirely made up of the single species. Although occasionally, a few Common Redpolls or American Goldfinches may mix in.

Pine Siskin flock feeding in red alder.

Pine Siskin flock feeding in red alder

By far the largest flock I’ve seen this season, more than 800 birds, was swirling around the trees at the entrance to Deer Lake Park at Baffin Place earlier this week. I looked and listened, but as far as I could tell the entire flock was Pine Siskins – truly all birds of a feather. While mostly staying in the tree tops, sometimes these flocks move lower down to feed, and will even come right to ground level looking for food, or to pick up grit or small stones, which they swallow and store in their gizzards. If you don’t have teeth, a gizzard is evolution’s perfect solution for “chewing” food. The grit and stones are used in the muscular organ to grind up the bird’s food as part of the digestive process.

Pine Siskin on the ground looking for food or small stones or grit.

Pine Siskin on the ground foraging for food, or small stones or grit for its gizzard

Grit and small stones are not, however, the only reason for these birds to come to ground. Spending most to their time in tree tops, there comes a time for siskins to drink and bathe, and many in this huge flock were intent on both.

Here at Baffin Place, Third Beach Creek emerges from under Oakland St. and plunges deep into the forest as it makes its way into the lake below. A narrow, shallow stream, concealed in the forest is the perfect location for birds to drink and bathe.

Pine Siskins drinking along Third Beach Creek.

Pine Siskins crowding and drinking along Third Beach Creek.

And just like humans after a few drinks, the urge to jump in the hot tub is irresistible for some. In this case, the icy stream standing in for the warmer waters that we softies prefer.

Pine Siskins bathing along Third Beach Creek

Pine Siskins communally bathing along Third Beach Creek

Bathing itself is quite the explosive activity. In the centre of the “water bomb” below is a bathing, but invisible Pine Siskin. You’ll have to take my word for it.

Bathtime

Rapidly beating wings and shaking body produce an explosion of spray from this bathing siskin

After getting the feathers clean, it’s time to perch a little higher to carefully preen and get ready for flight, and to keep feathers waterproof.

After bathing the Pine Siskin preens the feathers into prime condition

A Pine Siskin preens its feathers into prime condition

Another of our familiar birds, the Bushtit, also flocks pretty much exclusively with its own kind during the winter months. This diminutive bird is related to chickadees, but not very closely, and is usually seen in flocks of from ten to thirty or so birds. Much easier to observe closely than Pine Siskins, Bushtits rarely feed in the tree tops, and are frequent visitors to suburban gardens where they will eagerly swarm the fat feeders put out for woodpeckers.

Is there room for me? Bushtits swarming a fat feeder

Is there room for me? Bushtits swarming a fat feeder

And not just one side.

Crowding both sides of the feeder, Bushtits eagerly eat the fat supplied for woodpeckers

Crowding both sides of the feeder, Bushtits eagerly eat the fat supplied for woodpeckers

Bushtit flocks are in almost constant motion, and will usually stay just a minute or two at the feeder before moving on. Sometimes one will stay still long enough to catch a solo picture.

Female Bushtits have yellow eyes, the males have dark eyes

Female Bushtits have yellow eyes; the males’ eyes are dark

Given their habit of flocking, it’s not surprising that Bushtits are very social birds, and this sociability extends beyond spending their winter days in together in feeding flocks. Come night-time and dropping temperatures, Bushtits will huddle in tight groups to maintain body heat overnight. In the breeding season, some populations of Bushtits have helpers at their nests in addition to the breeding pair – true birds of a feather.

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