Posted by: ktzefr | May 17, 2017

A Mob By Any Other Name…is still just birds

Bluejays, by Betty Bruner

I was sitting on the back deck enjoying a quiet afternoon when a bunch of bluejays started squawking overhead in the maple and beech and tulip poplar trees.  Did they want peanuts, again?  Mornings for years I’ve been giving whole peanut treats to an ever-expanding “family” of bluejays.  But they eat and leave and are rarely around in the afternoon.  Still, I tossed fresh peanuts into the yard. 

The birds didn’t budge.  And they didn’t shut up.  Bluejays like to “talk” but they also like to eat, and they were staying hidden in the treetops for some reason.  Not one bird flew down to get a peanut. 

I searched the yard from my perch on the deck and finally spotted him — a big hawk sitting atop the fence separating our yard from the neighbor’s.  I slipped inside and donned my black winter cape — it allowed me to “flap my own wings,” giving the impression of a giant bird.  (Yes, I’m rather silly in that way.)  It worked!  The hawk was gone.

But so were the bluejays.  They didn’t lag behind to eat the peanuts.  Instead they followed the hawk, squawking at the top of their bird lungs until they were out of earshot. 

Later, I learned that this is known as mob behavior in the bird world.

The word “mob” has always been associated with negative gatherings — THE Mob/Mafia, the mobs that turn protest into riot, mobs that trample their members during times of crises or rock concerts.  Mobs form in the bird world to get rid of predators that threaten birds and their nests and nestlings.  One bird sees a hawk or owl or snake and calls to others.  The warning gets repeated across yards, fields, forests.  The more dangerous the enemy, the more serious (loud, intense, long) the call.  Different species recognize their particular worst enemies and adjust their calls accordingly.  The alarm call tells other birds about the predator, where it is, and how big a threat it poses.

If the predator isn’t frightened away by the commotion of a few birds, the bird calls change.  They organize a mob.  Mob calls can become deafening.  The birds may even attack the predator en masse in fly-by nips with their beaks and feet.  When the predator finally leaves, the birds will often pursue it for blocks until they know it is a safe distance away.  So, in the bird world, a mob is not necessarily a bad thing, except for the hawks and owls and snakes.

Many different terms have been used in the past to describe groups of specific birds — a bevy of quail, a gaggle of geese, a murder of crows.  A congress of crows and a band of crows were also common terms.  Did you know that a “chain” referred to a bunch of bobolinks or that groups of partridges were called coveys or that kingfishers came in concentrations?  Owls form a parliament and vultures form a wake.  And “murmuration” doesn’t seem to fit starlings at all.  Murmur makes me think of whispers; starlings are noisy.  But murmuration is something else, indeed. 

A flock of starlings in murmuration is a beautiful sight.  On a sunny day last fall I had just arrived in Mexico’s central mountains, came out of the airport to get a taxi, and was greeted by a huge flock of starlings — “dancing” across the blue sky.  I didn’t get a video or picture of that scene, but this is what it looks like. 

(This amazing video was filmed by wild life cameraman and travel journalist Dylan Winter)

 

Today, the various terms for bunches of birds — a herd of curlews or a siege of bitterns, for example — are rarely used anymore.   One has to remember only two words to describe a group of birds — a “flock” or a “mob” — depending on what the birds are up to in the sky.

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Responses

  1. Hello!! I have stumbled across your blog while searching for a topic and I noticed this post… The photo you have posted was painted by my grandmother, Betty Bruner. This was such a pleasant surprise. My grandmother passed away in 2007 and anytime I see someone with one of her prints, it always makes me smile. Perhaps you could tell me where you got this print? I noticed it was signed by her as well.

    • Hi Jason,

      I got the painting from your grandmother many years ago. Your grandfather, Ed, was my cousin. Your grandmother was a talented artist and a lovely person. I’m glad you found my blog. If you check out the archives, you’ll find many posts about Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia.

      Katie


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