Social distance

We humans have learned a lesson in observing increased personal space during the Covid pandemic — a lesson birds observe on a regular basis, not from anxiety about spreading disease, but more in response to their size, their level of thermal comfort, or their need for protection.

Big-bodied Wood Ducks sit relatively close together during the period when they are molting annually into their new suit of feathers.

These male Wood Ducks are good-looking even in their “eclipse”, or alternate, non-breeding plumage, as they rest in the shade around the edge of the pond. This temporary look gives them some camouflage protection while they are molting a fresh set of flight feathers. Later they will undergo another, partial molt to renew their bright, breeding coloration. At this time, Wood Ducks are fairly tolerant of each other’s presence, and sit quietly like bumps on a log (literally!) hoping not to be noticed by predators.
kind of like standing in line at the supermarket…6 feet of distance, please!
Pigeons perch closer together than the ducks on a warm day, obviously not from a need to stay warm, but to avoid getting picked off by a passing raptor by presenting a larger target and more confusion about where to strike. Social birds are social for good reasons!

However, social distance between birds depends greatly on their size and the ambient temperature in some species, increasing when it’s warm and decreasing when it’s very cool.

When the temperature drops, social distance collapses, and birds pile together to conserve body heat, like the Eastern Bluebirds did at a local park last winter during our week of -20F weather. (Photo by Scott Mohn, in a blog post on Feb. 7, 2021).

Scott Mohn found just such a collection of male Eastern Bluebirds huddling together on a tree limb at Como Park golf course on this cold morning and graciously allowed me to use his image. (Click on the image to see it full screen). Notice these are all male bluebirds, which would not tolerate each other’s presence during the breeding season. But for the purpose of winter survival, they are bosom buddies.

There are lots of examples of this huddling behavior in small and large birds during adverse weather conditions, where social distance and personal space becomes far less important than survival!

Check out the collection of images of birds huddling for warmth at this website for Bored Panda.

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