Birds Who Practice Social Distancing

Wednesday, March 25, 2020
'Social distancing' is a term we've been hearing a lot over the past couple of weeks, and for good reason. We are being urged to stay apart from each other to protect ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, and beyond. This temporary way of life is not something we humans are used to. We are social creatures by nature, so staying apart from one another proves difficult for many of us. While we may be feeling anxious or overwhelmed in these times, birds are carrying on with their regular routines and behaviours outside of our windows. And while this concept may be new for us, for some birds, social distancing is just a way of life.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)
Many species of birds form in large flocks to migrate, feed, and even nest. Birds flock together for many reasons, including protection from predators, when in flight it enables them to fly further and reduce fatigue by coasting on uplifts created by the leaders of the flock, and for species who migrate at night, flocking together can help conserve heat through cold conditions. Congregating and working together as a group seems like the safest way to live, but living a solitary lifestyle has its own unique advantages. By separating themselves from the flock, solitary birds such as woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and bitterns, are able to hide from predators and remain quiet without fear of another member of the flock giving away its location. These loner birds are also at an advantage when it comes to food supply because there is little to no competition, and get this.. they are generally healthier because they are not in contact with other birds who may be carrying diseases (sound familiar?).

Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) - Photo by Judy Schizkoske‎ from Athens, Ontario

There is one species in particular who spends so much time alone, that it's named after its reclusive habits.. the Solitary Sandpiper. This long-billed shorebird spends the majority of its time alone in swamps, foraging for prey such as insects, frogs, and snails, and is known to be highly aggressive to other birds who approach it while feeding. In contrast to most other shorebird's migration patterns, the Solitary Sandpiper flies solo for the full duration of the trip from its wintering grounds to its breeding grounds, and vice versa. Males and females pair up in the spring for nesting season, and remain together until the season has ended. When it comes to nest construction, the Solitary Sandpiper has anything but an orthodox approach. Rather than building a nest on the ground, this species lays it's eggs in trees. The male seeks out old nests typically used by American Robins, Canada Jays, or Eastern Kingbirds, and the female chooses which she would like to call home. She then refinishes the nest with new materials, and lays her eggs. Of the world's 85 sandpiper species, this nesting behaviour has only been recognized in two of those species, the Green Sandpiper and the Solitary Sandpiper. Both parents care for their 3-5 chicks for the duration of the season, and quickly part ways when it comes time to migrate in the fall, returning to their cloistered lifestyle.

This concept of social distancing is going to be (and needs to be) a part of our lives for months to come. We may not know what the future holds, but we do know that part of it lies in our hands. If these birds can manage to practice self-isolation for the entirety of their lives, surely we can comply for a couple of months. So be a Solitary Sandpiper, and distance yourself from the flock!

Stay healthy & happy trails!
- Shayna

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