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While shoveling out the yard during the last storm I was treated to what can only be called a “goldfinch blitz.” Following an initial visit of the usual handful of chickadees, blue jays and nuthatches the feeders were suddenly bombarded by close to 100 goldfinches. The flock filled all the trees and blueberry bushes around the house and attacked the seed pile en masse, diving in and then roaring out in one great flurry of feathers. It’s always fun to see any species at the feeder but when they show up in a mob, well, that’s when you get your money’s worth.
Over the course of the year I’ll have other species visit the feeders in great numbers for short periods, usually in spring and again in fall, but once in a while in summer the yard will be full of birds as small as juncos and as large as turkeys. It’s not known for sure why these birds suddenly gather in large flocks, although seasonal migration is a good guess. It happens throughout the growing year (rarely in winter) and entirely at random, so the jury is still out on the whys and wherefores of these events.
Over the spring and summer I’ll see starlings, blackbirds, red-winged blackbirds, boat-tailed grackles, crows, blue jays and (once) indigo buntings swarm the feeders with such a noise and bluster that I stop whatever I’m doing just to enjoy the show. I especially enjoy the fall performances where thousands of birds (mostly blackbirds or starlings) move across the sky in gigantic black clouds, the huge flocks changing shape and direction in an instant as it moves across the sky. I often see these monster flocks while driving, but I always stop and roll down the windows in the car so I can listen to the cacophonous sound made by thousands of enthusiastic voices. The phenomenon doesn’t last very long and when the flock decides to depart the silence can be deafening, too.
I think the most impressive show I’ve ever seen was when a flock of several thousand snow geese decided to land in the same cornfield I happened to be hunting for Canada geese. As usually happens, the flock of snows flew over several hundred yards high as if they were headed for some distant destination, but then suddenly the bottom of the flock fell out in the shape of a tornado. They swirled and circled directly above me and came down, every last one of them, less than 50 yards from my blind. The noise was incredible as every goose honked and hollered at the top of his lungs, and in minutes the entire flock was on the ground. The birds leap-frogged across the 100-acre cornfield eating every bit of greenery they could find, and when they left about two hours later the field looked as if it had been plowed and disked with a tractor.
My ears rang for hours, long after the flock had disappeared into the clouds, and decades later I still remember every detail of the event. These days there are more snow geese than ever and biologists are having a difficult time controlling their numbers. If you happen to run into a flock take the time to stop, watch and listen. You’ll be amazed at what you see and hear.
I’ve been observing events such as these for more than 50 years and because they are so unusual I can recall every one of them. One year, for example, I was in the woods hunting rabbits. It was mid-November and cold, and it was getting near the end of the day. I’d had enough of crashing through briars and brush and decided to get on a tote road and head back to the car. As I walked along in the pre-dusk gloom I heard the quack of a duck; just one quack, not very loud, but very close. I thought I may have jumped a lone mallard off a nearby beaver pond but when I looked up I could not believe my eyes: The sky was full of migrating ducks, skeins of them, flocks and groups near and far from one horizon to the other.
For the next half hour I watched as thousands of mallards, black ducks and pintails flew past, some high, some low, and every one of them headed directly south. I never heard another sound after that one initial quack and the flight continued until it became too dark to see them any longer, though I could still hear the whistle of their wings. I never saw that many ducks flying at once since then and I’ve been to some of the most famous “duck factories” in North America including Stuttgart, Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi Flyway, Canada and Mexico; one more intimate wildlife moment I will not forget.
I think the most shocking “flock” incident I ever experienced was years ago while deer hunting near Boyd Lake in LaGrange. I’d found a great spot far from the last logging trail that was full of buck sign and no evidence that any other hunters had been near the place. I picked a spot at the edge of some hardwoods overlooking a trail that skirted a swamp about 50 feet below. Deer trails crisscrossed the area but the two main trails were above and below me. It seemed like the ideal place to run into a roaming buck.
I picked a convenient blow down and prepared to sit all afternoon. It was cold and spitting snow, but it was the middle of the rut and the odds were in my favor.
Just before dark a robin flitted out of the swamp and sailed right into the branches of my fallen tree. Seconds later another robin appeared, and then another and another, until the brushy tree top was filled with roosted robins. By dark more than 30 robins had joined the flock.
We repeated this scenario the next afternoon and the next until the buck I was waiting for finally came along. Not only had I fooled a trophy whitetail but I’d cracked the robin code as well. Not a bad way to end the season!
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