Mat Bingham’s latest photo series captures birds of a feather.
It’s not just starlings that flock together in winter: other birds exhibit this behaviour. The shortened hours of daylight mean that they need to feed as efficiently as possible. Large numbers of birds looking for food increases their likelihood of success. Flocks are also a very effective way of dealing with threats; lots of eyes on the lookout reduces the likelihood of ending up as a meal for a hungry predatory bird or mammal.
For passerines (tree roosting birds) roosting together is a more efficient way to stay warm during the longer cold winter nights, as smaller bodies get colder quicker. Maybe they also enjoy each other’s company once all the pressures of finding a mate and raising their young have been forgotten for another year.
Wading birds also flock together for safety from predators, but unlike passerines, they roost on the ground. They pick a location it is difficult for predators to reach, such as mud flats. On the Wash in East Anglia, the peak numbers of wading birds that occur in midwinter are a mixture of resident UK birds and also large numbers of winter migrants heading to or from the Wadden Sea (the intertidal zone along the coast of Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands). If the food is abundant on the Wash these flocks can grow to mind-boggling numbers.
Different species of birds also sometimes flock together; it is not uncommon to see passerines such as redwings and fieldfares together or waders such as Oystercatchers in amongst a densely packed throng of Knot.
The presence of a predator will often spook a flock, causing them to take to the air and perform a flying synchronised dance. It’s not just the visual spectacle that is impressive; the noise of a large flock is also quite something. The rush of thousands of birds flying overhead reminds me of the breeze blowing through a field of barley or wheat.
As a general rule, I avoid crowds, but a flock of birds is something worth seeking out.