For Release August 29, 2004

Birds of a Feather, Flock Together

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

There's an old saying that says birds of a feather flock together. There is good solid evidence from wild bird populations that supports this saying. Late summer is the time when many bird species start to flock together, sometimes in a big way. And if that flock is spending nights in your trees, you can have one heck of a mess to deal with!

Birds flock together for one very basic reason; survival! During the breeding season, most bird species are fairly territorial. A breeding pair will establish and defend a territory to insure adequate food for themselves and their brood. But once the breeding season is over, this competition quickly falls by the wayside and birds start to flock up. Sometimes these flocks will be all one species, but often times there are several different species loosely affiliating with each other.

There is safety in numbers and that's the main reason for the flocking behavior. The more birds that there are together, the more eyes and ears there are to look and listen for potential danger. When a predator does attack, the presence of so many birds in the flock is often confusing to the predator and increases the chance of survival for all the birds in the flock. The bird that panics and breaks from the flock is often the one that the predator can take.

The flocking behavior for some species is a prelude to fall migration. For other species it is simply a winter survival technique. It may surprise many of you to know that fall migration, or southbound migration or post breeding migration, actually gets under way in mid summer. Purple Martins have been gathering for several weeks and will soon be departing for their wintering areas in Brazil. Shorebirds and sandpipers that didn't breed have been southbound since July. Hummingbirds have been moving through the area since early August and will continue to be in the area through late September or early October.

During the day, these flocks will forage about a fairly large area in very loose affiliation, often in small groups of a half dozen or so. But as dusk approaches they start moving back to a roosting area, which is usually in trees. If you find one of these roost trees and arrive about 30 minutes before sunset and sit quietly a little ways away it can be quite a sight to watch hundreds if not thousands of birds stream into the roost. Right now, Purple Martins, European Starlings and House Sparrows are roosting in large communal groups in trees. The problem is that they are leaving quite a mess under these trees. In a few weeks the Purple Martins will leave, but the starlings and sparrows continue to bless us with their year round presence.

There are no magic formulas to disperse birds from a roost. Birds have a very poor sense of smell so scent based repellents are ineffective. Rubber snakes and plastic owls are good for entertainment, but they will only last for about the first 30 minutes. The only truly successful method is usually with noise and lights. As the birds start to come into the roost you need to go out and make noise anyway you can. Yelling, screaming, clanging pots and pans together, even a starters pistol with blanks will work. You will have to keep this up for an hour or so and then for several nights in a row. The longer they have been roosting, the harder it will be to disperse them, but you have to be persistent. Or, you can just try to wait them out. They should move on by November.. or December.. or next spring!


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