We are practicing social distancing these days to avoid contacting the coronavirus. We have always practiced social distancing to a certain extent. We keep our distance when standing in line or when talking to others. We disdain “close talkers,” those who get right in your face when talking to you, and get annoyed when boarding an airplane through the long entryway that the person behind you is so close that you can almost feel their breath on your neck. Now we are asked to stay six feet away from others.
Watch birds sitting on power or telephone lines – they are also practicing “social distancing,” but for different reasons. Birds like blackbirds and starlings fly in flocks in the winter as a protective mechanism – more eyes watching out for predators, and they perch high for the same reason. But they perch several inches apart.
Why don’t they perch closer? Well, simply because they need room to land and take off, and both landing and taking off require the spreading of wings, so they need room for that.
Years ago I read an article in a local bird magazine whose grip on credible information was tenuous. Someone wrote in and explained that as bad weather approached a bunch of swallows perched on the utility lines behind his house. As there were five utility lines, the birds looked like notes on a musical staff. So the writer went to get his mandolin and proceeded to play what he saw. Turns out the musical piece was God Bless America! Well, I don’t know about that, but years later, just last year in fact, I ran across an article where a musician did something similar. Except he took a photo of the birds on the wires, composed it for xylophone, clarinet, oboe and bassoon and posted it on YouTube. Here it is.
When the weather is exceptionally cold, some birds will huddle together for the night – swallows, blackbirds, chickadees, nuthatches and others – to preserve body heat. But they are huddling together for the night and aren’t likely to fly off any minute.
But under usual conditions, birds practice social distancing. For example, most colonial seabirds that nest in one confined area construct nests equidistant from one another, allowing the birds to lay eggs and raise young without interference from a neighbor. The distance is often defined by how far a sitting bird can stretch its neck to peck at its neighbor. And you might find three dimensional social distancing in a colony of nesting cormorants or herons in a tree.
The same mechanism maintains order and discipline within foraging flocks. Foraging flocks, of shorebirds for example, are spread out evenly over mudflats. This reduces the chances of birds running into each other and disturbing their prey.
Although it was probably not a driving force in the evolution of social distancing behavior, there’s no doubt that social distancing among birds has slowed or prevented the transmission of disease. We know it does for us, so be safe and stay six feet away. And wear a mask.