Collective Feasting of Birds

Bird Party

©Nigel Dennis
Blue waxbill (Uraeginthus angolensis) Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Birds of different species of birds, frequently associate in mixed feeding parties and are found together in what is known as a ‘bird party’. Generally, the species in a bird party are predominantly insect eaters and each level or strata of birds feeding in the vegetation, benefits from the habits of the one above it, be it that they reap what the birds above them drop or that they inadvertently ‘herd’ insects into one another’s grasp.

Although most species attending bird parties are insectivorous, seed eaters like blue waxbills and doves also frequently form part of the action as do some frugivores (fruit-eaters) and omnivores (meat and plant eaters). A common food resource generally attracts the birds to form mixed parties and in the case of fruiting or flowering trees, not only will the frugivorous and nectarivorous birds be drawn to the location but so too will insects. In turn, the insect-eating birds arrive (and possibly also a predatory bird species occasionally). While the birds in the higher levels of vegetation move and feed they may knock seeds down to the smaller seed-eaters below.

Sharing is Caring

©Karl Svendsen
Burchell's Sandgrouse (Pterocles burchelli) Khalagadi, South Africa.
The collective feasting effort of a bird party affords all the birds in the area shared vigilance and many eyes and ears are better able to look out for danger and provide early warning of it. In the case of predators like a snake or small raptor, many different species of bird may then cooperate to mob it and chase it away.

Bird parties are a type of interspecific (between species) allelomimetic behaviour. Allelomimetic behaviour relates to ‘copy-cat’ behaviour practised predominantly by gregarious bird species. For example, blue waxbills form monogamous pairs but during the day they feed together in flocks for greater protection keeping constant contact with each other through high-pitched ‘tswees’. If one bird suddenly flies off, the entire flock will also fly away.

Red-billed quelea take this to the extreme and droves of literally thousands of birds respond to a change in direction by just one of their members and collectively they manage the most perfectly synchronized flight appearing as ever-changing dark shapes over the bushveld. Co-operative breeders such as arrow-marked babblers call in an allelomimetic fashion - one bird begins and the others join in contagiously producing a loud group vocalization that rises and then descends in volume. As far as bird parties are concerned, one or two birds begin feeding earnestly and other species notice this and join in ‘mimicking’ the original bird's behaviour until a large party forms.

Great For Birders

©Shem Compion
Fork tailed drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis).
Bird parties are the ideal find for avid birders as they provide concentrated viewing of varied species. The commonest species typically found associating in bird parties in the Lowveld include:

White-crested Helmet-Shrike (and sometimes Retz’s)
Fork-tailed Drongo
Chin-spot Batis
Brubru
Doves (Cape Turtle, Emerald Spotted Wood and Laughing)
Blue waxbills
Firefinches (Red-billed and Jameson’s)
Green-winged Pytilias
Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike
Grey-headed Bush-Shrike
Southern Black Tit
Woodpeckers (Cardinal, Bearded and Golden-tailed)
Golden-breasted and Cinnamon-breasted buntings
Dark-capped Bulbul
Black-backed puffback
White-bellied sunbird
Arrow-marked babblers
White-browed or Bearded Scrub-Robin
Francolin and spurfowl
Yellow-billed and red-billed hornbill
Long-billed crombec
Yellow-fronted canary
Spotted flycatcher

By Megan Emmett