Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Treecreepers and mixed flocks

ResearchBlogging.orgAs winter sets in, small, resident insectivorous birds including Long-tailed tits, Great Tits and Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Goldcrests and Treecreepers join in loose, vocal mixed-species flocks that travel and forage together. Why do they eschew from following the saying 'birds of a feather flock together'? Well, first, their small bodies lose heat easily and the days are short, so they need to obtain as much food as possible. On the other hand, the leafless trees makes them more exposed to predation, so, as they feed, they need to be vigilant, keeping an eye on predators and an eye on food, so to speak. Does flocking together help with this challenge: increasing foraging efficiency and reducing predation risk?
 Birds of different species can learn from each other while foraging together: where to find food and how to obtain it. Many of the birds in the mixed species flocks are young of the year, with much to learn. Also, birds spend less time watching for predators while in flocks than when solitary, which allows them to increase the time they can spend looking for food. Despite being 'in a crowd', Individuals in a flock made up of different species may be able to compete less amongst themselves than if they were in a single species flock, as different species often search for food in different microhabitats in trees and bushes. In these mixed flocks, there is a pecking order, with some species dominant, and others subordinate. In Wytham Wood, Oxford, the pecking order was from the more dominant, larger Great Tit, Blue Tit, Marsh Tit, Coal Tit, Long-tailed Tit, and finally the Goldcrest.
  Importantly, the more individuals in a flock, the more eyes and ears available to detect predators. There are similarities in the alarm calls of different species which can allow them to respond appropriately to each others calls.
 Treecreepers are specialists, exploiting the invertebrates found in the little nooks and crannies of tree trunks and thick branches, which they probe with their thin, curved bill while creeping up the trunk aided by their phenomenally curved nails and stiff tail, woodpecker style. This niche overlaps little with other members of the species flocks, and so, they are not expected to benefit from learning from other species or finding new food sources. What do they have to gain from joining mixed species flocks? Arevalo and Gosler investigated the behaviour of Treecreepers joining species flocks in Wytham Wood during two winters. When they found a treecreeper, they noted if if was part of a flock, and if it was, the size of the flock. They also recorded the number of hops and pecks to calculate the percentage of time the bird was looking for food.
 Treecrepers joined mixed flocks more often when the temperatures were lower, so all Treecreepers were found in mixed flocks in the coldest winter months, when flocks were also larger. When part of a flock, Treecreepers were most often found in the main trunk, where competition with other species was minimal, while when solitary, they used internal branches more, so they reduced their niche when in the flock.
Their key result is that the pecking rate was positively correlated with flock size, - indicating that treecreepers could devote more time to searching for food the larger the flock it was in. The pecking rate was not affected by temperature or by the species of tree. This suggests that treecreeper in mixed flocks reduced vigilance, concentrating their effort in foraging.
Overall, this research showed that Treecreepers make a decision to join a mixed flock based on the benefits and costs they are going to obtain. The colder the temperature, the more effort they need to make searching for food, and joining a flock allows them to use a larger proportion of their time feeding, as opposed to being vigilant. At higher temperatures the treecreeper could afford to spend more time keeping an eye on predators, and use a wider niche. The treecreeper, being very cryptic compared to the other species in the flock, might benefit directly from joining the noisy, more visible tits, if they are also less likely to be noticed by a potential predator finding the flock. Arevalo and Gosler also noted:
Treecreepers in flocks were seen to respond to the alarm calls of Long-tailed Tit and Coal Tit during Sparrowhawk attacks by 'freezing' and only resuming foraging after the other species had done so. Play-back experiments with Treecreepers have also shown that they can use information from other species within the flocks in which they usually participate.
You can see this short clip I took a couple of days ago of a Treecreeper showing this 'freezing' behaviour, when a Magpie was nearby. The treecreeper was not part of a flock.

More information

Morse, D. H. (1978). Structure and foraging patterns of flocks of tits and associated species in an English woodland during the winter. Ibis, 120(3), 298-312.

Morse, D. H. (1970). Ecological aspects of some mixed-species foraging flocks of birds. Ecological Monographs, 119-168.

J. E. Arévalo and A. G. Gosler (1994). The behaviour of Treecreepers Certhia familiaris in mixed-species flocks in winter. Bird Study, 41 (1), 1-6 : 10.1080/00063659409477190

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