22 Dec Flocking – birds in groups
Flock generally refers to a group of individuals that gather together with some purpose. Flocking is the behaviour of forming such flocks. In the animal kingdom, it is very common to find such groups. Many individuals get together to enjoy the advantages of feeding together, moving around together, literally living together.
Among all, birds are what come to mind first, when we think of flocks. There are a few sights or moments in the natural world that create a sense of bliss, peace and freedom, making the viewers go wow! One such, is the sight of a huge flock of the winged beauties taking to flight all at once. The amount of air that gushes past from the birds’ synchronised flutter of wings and the resulting whooshing sound, just seem to take the viewer’s breath away. Quite naturally, creating an awe inspiring moment in time.
Being in a flock means, there are so many individuals in very close proximity. Taking to flight should indeed be a precision effort by all. Each member of the flock moves its wings with such perfection that there doesn’t seem to be any clashes or discomfort for the other members (even if there are, i am sure its to the very minimum). Each one seems to time its take-off pretty accurately. The air drift caused by the multitude of flutters from those that have already taken to flight and are at the top of the flock, probably helps those which are down below and just about to take off.
Working as a team, thus enables the individuals to minimise the energy they expend. This is one of the main reasons why most of the long distance migratory birds tend to fly in large flocks. The flock gets into specific formations ( like a V pattern or such ) while flying. This minimises air resistance and maximises drift thus helping the individuals to take turns in beating their wings. This conserves energy, which is very crucial for making such long flights.
Flocks could range from a few hundred individuals to a few hundred thousand strong and could form for a variety of reasons. The two main ones being food and protection.
Feeding together in a group has its benefits. Easier to find food and locations to forage. With so many eyes looking, not a speck of food should go unnoticed. Also, not all birds feed at the same time. There are always a few raised heads and eyes watching for any imminent danger.
Groups of cormorants form hunting parties when they go fishing. They swim around disturbing and driving fish to the surface, enabling each of them to catch and feed satisfactorily. Works in a very effective way.
Being in a big flock is much safer than moving about alone. Safety, for sure, is there in numbers. There are many eyes watching around for any potential predators. And even if one among the group gets a hint of any impending danger, alarm calls start sounding, thus alerting the rest of the flock.
Its also very difficult, nearly impossible, for a predator to break into a flock and hunt. More so, when the flock is in flight. The flock is such a tightly knit, cohesive unit that it can be very challenging and risky at times, for a predator to attempt anything. Predators are more successful in their hunt when they can single out individuals that lag behind or are left out of the flock.
Imagine anything trying to get into this flock….!
Flocking also helps in gathering and retaining body warmth in rather cold areas, especially during winters. Here’s a group of Ashy-wood swallows perched as a group, to warm each other up, on a rather cold winter morning.
Here’s one more, a group of larks, during winter in Phobjikha valley in Bhutan. A nice way to lessen the rate of heat loss and also share whatever warmth is left, with each other.
Many a time, flocks could be a mixed one, meaning, there could be individuals belonging to more than one particular species. This was flock of white-fronted goose among a flock of greylag geese. This is quite common and many smaller flocks come together to form bigger ones. All for the benefits that come from being part of a larger flock.
Flocking behaviour is displayed by mammals too. With them, it is termed ‘herding’. Under threat from a pack of jackals, this herd of spotted deer come together to form some sort of a huddle, moving around in a tight circle. Gaining protection in numbers and the formation.
Flocking is not all with benefits alone. It does come with some disadvantages. There could be intense competition among the members when food becomes scarce. Finding a mate or the right nesting spot could also become challenging and result in squabbles. And the worse of all, any disease that affects a few individuals can spread quite rapidly among the group and bring down a huge number of animals.
Albeit its few shortcomings, flocking has great many benefits and is a critical part in the life cycle of many species in the animal kingdom. And also a wonderful spectacle for any curious nature lover.