About us: We own the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in East Lansing, Michigan,
a store that provides a wide variety of supplies to help you enjoy the birdwatching hobby.

This blog was created to answer frequently asked questions & to share nature stories and photographs.
To contribute, email me at bloubird@gmail.com.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Feisty Finches: Does Dominance Matter?

I have so many finches I can’t count them all and I love every single one of them.  But I have a question.  I have quite a large bird feeder.  They all come at once to feed and fight over spots to eat.  Maybe like 30 at a time.   Then none of them come to feed for maybe an hour or so.  Then they all come again, all at the same time, to feed again.  Can you tell me why they all feed at once when it would be so much nicer for them if they didn’t have to fight to get a space and came at the time when the feeder is empty of birds?  Do they feel safer eating all together? Also, I have new smaller birds coming to feed that look like the finches but have tiny dots on their chests.  Are these a different type of bird or are they babies?  If you could answer my inquiries, I would be so grateful.
American Goldfinches Feisty and Ready to Fight
You have made some really good observations. One of the best things about feeding birds is watching all the stories unfold. This is real reality entertainment right outside the window. I was just laughing with a customer the other day about how my window feeder has two perches but if one side is occupied inevitably another finch will shove that bird out of the way even though the other side was free. Why?

AllAboutBirds.org explains: Birds are doing a lot more than just feeding when they visit your bird feeder. They are coming and going and interacting with each other in a well-established social pecking order. At first it looks like just a flurry of activity—but watch closely and you’ll start to see the daily struggle of dominance playing out in your backyard.
Displacement: One of the most common and easiest to see behaviors, displacement occurs anytime one bird leaves to get out of the way of another bird. Within the same species, generally speaking, males tend to dominate females and older birds dominate younger ones. Feeder hierarchies can also involve birds of several species, with the larger species usually winning out over the smaller.
Threat Displays or Appeasement:  Sometimes a dominant bird displays aggressive intent, with their bill or wing-spread display in the direction of the subordinate bird. Or subordinate birds make appeasement displays that de-emphasize their size by showing a sleeker, smaller posture and seem to shy away from interaction. 

Does Dominance Matter? It is more than just birdy bullying, with age and experience comes the benefit of better feeding. Research has shown that dominant birds forage in safer spots and at safer hours of the day (when there’s less predation). Accordingly, they get eaten by predators less frequently, are able to maintain a better body condition throughout the lean winter months, and have higher survivorship.

Pine Siskins alongside American Goldfinches
Now on to why the finches feed in flocks. Many birds form flocks year round like doves, starlings, waxwings, crows, jays, and goldfinches. And some species form flocks just during the winter like cardinals, bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches. While other birds prefer to remain solitary like hummingbirds, woodpeckers, hawks, and wrens. 

1) Protection - When birds join forces to flock together they can spot predators quicker and then mob, distract or confuse attackers.   
2) Foraging efficiency – Sometimes scout birds are sent out in different directions and report back to the flock where the best food can be found.
3) Finding mates – Some bird species disperse after nesting season to find a flock to winter with along with a mate for next spring.
4) Continuing Education – Some species form family groups in the fall. Parent birds continue to teach their young how to survive until they disperse in the spring to find their own mates.
5) Fly in formations – Certain birds’ aerodynamics conserves energy and allow flock members to see each other and communicate while in flight.
6) Roosting – When large flocks congregate at night, their shared body warmth can help them survive extremely cold temperatures. 
Hoary and Common Redpoll photo via Wikimedia Commons
And finally what is that small bird with tiny dots? Baby American Goldfinches don’t have any dots. Other possibilities of birds that are most commonly seen alongside finches in the winter are Pine Siskins, Common, or Hoary Redpolls.

Related Articles:
What to feed birds in the winter http://bit.ly/tfT7Ca
Where Do Birds Go At Night? http://bit.ly/uoQOBw
How can birds survive this cold weather? http://bit.ly/uKZs6v
Food & water from bird feeders can impact birds’ survival http://bit.ly/tsnvpP

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