I was eating breakfast the other day when I realized there was a commotion of scolding birds at my front door.
The tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and Northern cardinals that normally inundate my feeders in the early morning were instead scolding something at the door.
Over the years I have learned to speak a little “bird” and I thought I was hearing “snake.” I opened the door just in time to see a black tail slide around the porch. It was a rat snake, with a large bulge in it. I suspect it was a sickly house finch that had been hanging around for some weeks, and I haven’t seen it since.
Songbirds use a mobbing behavior to call attention to predators that they discover. Experienced birders know that a mobbing flock of songbirds might lead to roosting Eastern screech owl or barred owl. Sometimes it is another predator like a snake or cat.
A flock of crows will harass a red-tailed hawk or barred owl generally with short-lived enthusiasm. But let them discover a roosting great-horned-owl or barn owl and the call will go out for reinforcements until every crow for miles seems to get involved.
A really good mob will often get a red-shouldered hawk involved too, adding its high-pitched calls to the racket. I know it’s a great horned owl they have discovered when I hear the hawk.
Experienced birders take advantage of this mobbing behavior and make some scolding sounds of their own to attract flocks of songbirds. A scolding Carolina wren is fairly easy to imitate and by doing so, birders can attract all the birds in an area to within a few feet of them. A tape recording of an Eastern screech-owl will attract small birds too.
Songbirds’ response to other predators can be very different. If you have ever noticed the normally active birds at your feeders suddenly stop and sit perfectly still, it is likely a Cooper’s hawk or sharp-shinned hawk is close by. A small bird that scolds one of these bird eaters will often end up a main course itself.
Next time you witness this behavior or hear a noisy congregation of birds, check it out. You might find something even more interesting.