FEBRUARY 12, 2020
by Natalie Van Hoose, Florida Museum of Natural History
Birds of a feather don't always flock together: Peer into a forest canopy, and you will likely spot multiple bird species flying and feeding together, a phenomenon most spectacular in the Amazon where 50 species may travel as a unit. But are birds in these mixed flocks cooperating with one another or competing?
A new study suggests both.
In an analysis of nearly 100 North Florida flocks, Florida Museum of Natural History researchers found similar bird species were significantly more likely to flock together than hunt alone, working as a group to stay safe from predators while cruising the canopy in search of insects. Species kept competition within the flock low, however, by differentiating their foraging technique, their choice of hunting spot or the general distance they kept from a tree trunk.
In other words, think of flock dynamics like a K-pop band, said study lead author Harrison Jones.
"You have to be similar enough to the other members to get along as a group but specialized in some way: There's the leader, the one who raps, the one who plays guitar," said Jones, a doctoral student in the University of Florida's department of biology. "It's the same with birds. They hang out together because they share things in common, but they can't share too much. If you're so similar that you're eating each other's lunch, then you have a serious problem."