Get By With A Little Help From Your Friends: Bird Gangs In Pittsburgh's Parks

December 2, 2016 by Lauryn Stalter

If you're looking for tips on how to survive Pittsburgh's long, cold winters, just look to birds. They're approach? Eat as much as you can, hang out with friends, and spend time in the parks. 

Ruby-crowned kinglet. Photo: Melissa McMastersThrough the cold winter months, small birds in the parks employ a unique survival technique: they band together to form mixed-species foraging flocks. These bird guilds, as they're also called, are made up of birds that stick around all winter, as opposed to their fair-weather friends who head south. 

These tough little birds get together, it is thought, to help watch each other's backs. They may also be able to more successfully find food as a group. With sources scarcer in the winter, insect-eating birds can focus more on finding hidden chow than on watching for predators, and may possibly even learn about new food sources from their bird guild allies. 

Downy woodpecker. Photo: Melissa McMasters

Tufted titmouse. Photo: Melissa McMasters

These bird gangs, however, aren't always copacetic. Struggles over guild hierarchy do happen, sometimes being determined by size, age, or gender. Scuffles over food, and straight out theft, also occur. 

Birds of a more similar feather will also flock together during the cold-weather months. Notice that you may see more cardinals banding together; young, inexperienced, and territory-less cardinals will find older cardinals to shadow and forage alongside after the breeding season is over. 

Northern cardinal. Photo: Melissa McMasters

Keep an eye out for groupings of chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and other small birds banding together in your parks in the upcoming months. And follow their lead to get the most out of this Pittsburgh winter.