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Flocking Time

June 7, 2022

In the bird world, Autumn is flocking time. Many kinds of birds congregate in flocks in Autumn whereas in Spring and Summer, they are more likely found in pairs or families. It’s now early Winter but there are super-sized flocks still going around.

There is a massive flock of Long-billed Corellas (Cacatua tenuirostris) which roosts at the Yea Wetlands. They turn up towards dusk and the noise is deafening. A friend who had seen a similar flock thought they must nest in vast colonies somewhere, but I was able to point out that flocking is an Autumn-Winter thing. Mating pairs reunite and disperse in Springtime – they are monogamous and mate for life. Then in Summer the parents with their squeaking, demanding young ones hang around in family groups. The whole flock does not breed each year; I think I read that only about 80% breed each year, otherwise there would not be enough nest holes in trees.

This is the time to see murmurations of flocking Starlings (.Sturnus vulgaris). I saw a flock of 25 Straw-necked Ibis (Threskiornis spinikollis), and a feeding flock on a field of Little Ravens (Corvus mellori). Pied Currawongs (Strepera graculina) have built into loose flocks as their numbers in the lowland areas are augmented in the cooler months by altitudinal migration. Even White-winged Choughs (Corcorax melanorhamphos) which are usually in large family groups of 20 or so will form a super flock as I saw one day in Koondrook, consisting of hundreds of birds in a single well-treed paddock.

How does a flock of birds know how to swirl and turn and move together? In Australia, the most legendary flock behaviour is that of Budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus) whose large flocks are apparently incredible to watch, turning the sky black, with deafening cries and wonderful acrobatics. I have heard anecdotes that when a flock swoops into perch, there are accidents – broken wings, injuries – but in the main we see incredible coordinated movement when birds are in a flock.

How a flock works is a good life lesson:
1. The whole flock needs to know to head in the same general direction
2. Each bird is responsible to keep reasonably close to the neighbouring birds – don’t get isolated
3. At the same time, each bird is responsible not to crowd their neighbour and become a liability, a cause of interference and crashing.

When these 3 rules are followed, the whole group can respond to the skill and imagination of one another, they can navigate crises together (predators such as falcons), they can benefit from shared knowledge of the landscape, they can get where they are going faster and safer.

I hope you can see, I think all these things apply to human communities and groups. Think about it: shared goals, not too close and not too far, watching out for each other, responding to each other.

Flocking is a good way to live. Join a group and follow these rules.

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