Saturday, March 03, 2007

Winter cliques

You don't often see a flock of chickadees and titmice without also seeing the other members of their winter clique - the white-breasted nuthatch and the downy woodpecker. The downy, being more deliberate and cautious, was much easier to photograph than the other members of the merry troupe moving through the woods this afternoon. I heard them coming, mostly the chatter of the chickadees, long before they were in sight. The only bird missing was a brown creeper, but those are hard to find locally. The downy paused briefly to inspect the bark of this birch before drifting leisurely away with the rest of his associates.

It's thought that a mixed flock like this benefits the members in a few ways. The many eyes and ears may be better able to find predators or food. Each species is able to take advantage of its own niche within the habitat while helping other members of the flock to locate food. We see this at our backyard feeders; curious chickadees are often the first species to check out a new feeder, followed closely by titmice, and finally the more wary woodpeckers. I've read that downy woodpeckers use chickadees and titmice as sentinels in a mixed-species flock. I also listen for their high pitched *seeee* notes to know that there's a hawk overhead.

The winter cliques will be breaking up before long as spring draws near and competition for territory and a mate becomes more important than the companionship of hungry friends. The demands of nesting and feeding a family must not leave time for much else. Until then, our familiar winter birds travel together and liven up the winter landscape with their whispered rumors of spring.