I’ve long enjoyed a little light birding as a hobby — but I’ve gotten much more serious about it since moving both home and business to the Frontenac Arch Biosphere and incredibly species-rich area of Canada. Consequently, I’ve also become more interested in the mechanics of conservation — and a recent article in Nautilus introduced me to an aspect of bird self-protection that I’d never considered before.
It’s pretty neat: turns out, the behaviour known as “mobbing” (when groups of smaller birds harass and drive away larger predators from an area) has an important social aspect. Avian wildlife ecologist Katie Sieving (University of Florida) characterizes mobbing as, on the surface, full of risk. The activity calls attention to the birds doing the mobbing, and is distracting enough that another predator could swoop in and pick off a meal with almost no resistance. But chatty, loud, active bird species — in eastern North America, the species is often the titmouse — serve as an early warning system for many species around them, contributing to a general understanding that the area is a “good neighbourhood.” Other species (including small mammals) literally “eavesdrop” on the titmice, and:
“[t]his eavesdropping turns out to be adaptive. Multiple studies have demonstrated that social and talkative bird species, the ones most likely to initiate mobbing, improve the survival of the birds around them. Titmice, tits, chickadees, fulvettas: They’re tiny birds with big mouths, and wherever they live, less outspoken species are drawn to them, and eat better, have more babies, and live longer. Sieving says, ‘We don’t know if it’s a kind of parasitism’ — that is, the bolder species are actually harmed by the shyer species’ use of their vigilant habits; ‘or if it’s just commensalism’ — the shyer species benefit, but the bolder species are not affected.
Either way, these dynamics seem essential to community structure.”
This behaviour is so valued by other species that they will follow their virtual canaries in the mine to other locations — which is helping scientists refine the efficacy of wilderness corridors, and other human-created strategies for bird survival in an anthropocentric world.
Right now, as mentioned earlier, I’m having a great time working with the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre on a series of workshops on using tech to help identify all the amazing birds that call our home “home.” I’m hoping, at the next session when I’m chatting with an attendee, or if I’m out and about, to catch a little “mob” activity — giving me the chance to see such a seemingly straightforward behaviour in a much more far-reaching light!