Winter Flocks

If there is one thing that characterizes this season, as far as birds are concerned, it is the fact of flocks. Whether it is the growing rafts of ducks on the lake in the park, the flocks of gulls in the ploughed fields or the chattering groups of Redwings and Fieldfares – wintering thrushes from Scandinavia – feeding on the berried bushes at Heartwood Forest, if you venture out, you will undoubtedly be greeted by birds in flocks.

I came across a flock of some thirty Goldfinches whilst out walking the other day. Feeding astride teasel heads they were almost lost in the multitude of brown hues around them. On closer inspection however, each appeared as a cluster of bright jewels, brightening even the most lifeless twigs and sprinkling the air with their canary-like twittering.

Goldfinch

Goldfinch on Teasels

At this time of year, birds, by and large, exchange their solo performances of the spring and summer months for great group expressions, often witnessed across our skies. Instead of song and courtship, of secretive nesting and the raising of young, many species throw caution to the wind and join their brothers and sisters in great group displays. Caution and secrecy after all are luxuries only afforded by the leafy cover of summer and with all now exposed and the demand for sustenance in the bitter days of winter, security must be found in strength of numbers instead.

This exposure makes the birds far more visible but I was struck recently as to how the flock itself may act as much needed camouflage even in the most open of spaces. As I crossed an open, ploughed field I watched brown leaves dance across the furrowed earth and then settle before being picked up again on their tumbling flight. It wasn’t until I raised my binoculars that I realized these were no leaves but instead a fluttering flock of skylarks, buntings and pipits. I wondered how many Sparrowhawks had also dismissed this little flock as a tasteless bunch of old leaves!

Survival is the order of the day, but I wonder, perhaps having in mind our own seasonal tendency to flock festively, whether birds find any higher pleasures in being together other than the basics of warmth and security. Does companionship feature and do the shared moments warm not just little avian bodies but also the little cockles of their hearts? I’d like to think so on the hardest winter days but it is hard to deny the singular mind of the flock in flight – perhaps triggered by a passing predator – the movement is as one with no room for individual performances.

I watched Starlings fly into roost on a pylon one evening this week. A bird famed for its massed flocks but perhaps more familiar during the day as a noisy, squabbling garden bird: the Starling exchanges its jostling daytime antics for a truly synchronized and artistic display of flocked flight prior to roosting at dusk. As I watched, beginning with just one bird, a lonely sentinel guiding others in, the pylon wires soon filled with clamouring birds, a hundred in all. A moment’s silence, as if to establish decorum, and then the whirring of wings as the flock lifted as one body for a pre-roost circuit. Not quite large enough for a proper ‘murmuration’ but nevertheless a unit twisting and turning in unison, with the makings of that smoke-like shifting form of larger flocks that inspires awe and wonder in the observer.

Murmuration

Starling Murmuration

For me, all these flocks, with their hundreds of little beating hearts, bring a welcome warmth and movement into our cold, wintry landscape that would be just that little bit colder without them.

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