Birds can forage efficiently in flocks

Published 10:20 am Saturday, July 10, 2010

My neighbor Crandall stops by.

“How are you doing?” I ask.

“Things are nearly copacetic. I was going to work today but I can always do that tomorrow. Yesterday was one of those days. I backed out of the garage and ran over the tail of the neighbor’s tomcat. It was that big yellow one. He let out a yowl so loud that it caused me to cramp the steering wheel. I ran into my brand new used Snapper riding lawn mower, zoomed down the driveway, hit my mailbox, careened into the ditch, and backed out into a field until I hit the biggest tree in three counties.”

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“What happened then?” I say.

“I lost control of the car. I played a little dartball today to cheer me up. I missed the entire dartboard on my first throw. My second dart hit right in the same place. I’m that good. Oh, Ma wants to go on a cruise for her birthday. She says that she wants to smell the ocean air. She really has her heart set on traveling by ship.”

“Are you going to take her on a cruise for her natal day?” I ask.

“Nah, I’m just going to sit her down in her rocking chair and fan her with some lutefisk.”

Bird names

Marilyn O’Connor of Blaisdell, N.Y., said that when she was a little girl, she was taking a walk with her father in their neighborhood. There was a bird perched upon a utility wire. Marilyn asked her father what kind of bird it was and he informed her that it was a mourning dove. Marilyn told me that she was so impressed that the bird had a first and a last name.

Q and A

“Has the loon been our only state bird?” Officially, yes. Before the Legislature decided that the loon should be Minnesota’s state bird, several other birds were suggested, including the eastern goldfinch (1947), the mourning dove (1951), the pileated woodpecker (1951 and 1953), the scarlet tanager (1951), and the wood duck (1951).

On March 13, 1961, Gov. Elmer L. Andersen signed legislation that adopted the common loon as the official state bird of the State of Minnesota.

“Why do birds flock together?” Birds forage more efficiently in flocks than they do as individuals. Food sources often occur in unpredictable temporary patches. Many eyes find food faster than a solitary feeder’s pair. Living in a flock is safer than living alone. Flocks have many eyes and vigilant members. They detect predators at great distances and flee before a true threat materializes. If a hawk or falcon attacks, it’s safer to be in a group. Flocks under attack gather into tight flight formations and make twists and turns that confuse raptors and make it difficult for a predator to focus on an individual. Evasive flocks form tight groups as each individual attempts to reach the center of the flock. The center is the safest position because raptors typically attack individuals on the edge of a flock. Roosting flocks enjoy similar advantages. The safest spot in a roost is in the middle. The older, more dominant birds assume the safer interior spots, leaving younger, less dominant birds to the more vulnerable, peripheral positions. This results in constant bickering and competition for the best locations. Another advantage to winter roosts is that members are able to huddle close to reduce heat loss on cold nights.

Nature lessons

The cranes seen along the Platte River are mainly lesser sandhill cranes. Greater sandhill cranes, found at Bosque del Apache, are larger and have much longer bills. The greaters are more approachable by humans.

If you have trouble getting a child to go outdoors, get him or her a low-priced digital camera.

The sword-billed hummingbird, found in South America, has a bill longer than its body.

The emperor penguin dives deeper than the Empire State Building is tall.

Despite its name, the American tree sparrow places its nest on or near ground, often in clump of grass at the base of shrub.

White-breasted nuthatches sweep the bark around their nest holes while holding insects in their bills. Some researchers believe that because tree squirrels are the chief competitors for the natural cavities nuthatches use for nesting, the bill-sweeping may serve to deter squirrels by spreading the crushed insects, which act as a repellant.


Victoria occupies the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island. It was named after Queen Victoria, who never visited the area. It is the largest city on the Island and was settled in 1843.

The Fairmont Empress Hotel, built from 1904-1908, offers both high and high-priced tea. My favorite place in Victoria is Butchart Gardens. It is to gardens what Augusta National is to golf courses. It is a 55-acre garden located in a played-out limestone quarry. It is a place to idle through knee-deep flowers.

Rockford, Iowa

Rockford is located between Mason City and Charles City at the confluence of the Shell Rock and Winnebago Rivers. The Floyd County Fossil and Prairie Park Preserve is located just west of Rockford. It was a clay pit for the now-defunct Rockford Brick and Tile Company. Floyd County acquired the property in 1990 and it is currently open to the public as a county park. A great number of fossil marine species are present within the Devonian strata of the park and the abundance of brachiopods is noteworthy. What makes the location special is that the calcareous ocean-bottom sediment deposited there never turned to hardened stone as it did nearly everywhere else in the region. This allows the fossils to weather out as discrete, often complete museum-grade specimens. This is one of the few geological preserves in the United States where admission is free and collecting fossils for private use is allowed.

While in Rockford, enjoy a visit to the delightful Fitz-Reading Garden. Stan and Corlyss Fitz have a remarkable backyard.

Pelican Breeze

Please join me as I host cruises on Albert Lea Lake on July 24, Aug. 15 and Sept. 5. Call 383-2630 for information.

Thanks for stopping by

“The air quality in New York is getting worse and worse. I

was walking thought Central Park during my lunch hour and,

honest to God, you could hear the birds coughing.” — Dave Letterman

“You are the only person on earth who can use your ability.” — Zig Ziglar


Al Batt of Hartland is a member of the Albert Lea Audubon Society. E-mail him at