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FAQ

Question of the Week

Q. Sometimes I see little birds going after a big bird. Why do they do this?

Red-winged Blackbird mobbing other species

Red-winged Blackbird mobbing other species: with Great Blue Heron, by Larry deWitt; with Red-tailed Hawk, by A wing and a prayer; with Osprey, by Laura M Eppig; with Bald Eagle, by Michelle Lamberson, all via Birdshare.

You witnessed a behavior called “mobbing,” where smaller birds swoop and dash at flying or perched larger birds (and sometimes mammals). They typically do this in an effort to drive away potential predators from a breeding territory, a nest or young, or a nonbreeding home range.

Common mobbers include chickadees, titmice, kingbirds, blackbirds, grackles, jays, and crows. Common targets of mobbing are hawks, crows, ravens, herons, and owls. Mobbing can happen at any time of year, but it is especially common in spring as birds experience surges of hormones, become territorial, and begin to nest.

There are different kinds of mobbing. Birds may chase other birds away from their territories or a food source. For example, in the early spring Red-winged Blackbirds chase not only rival blackbirds, but almost any other bird, big or small, that crosses their territory.

Mobbing is also used by birds as a way to protect themselves and their young against predators. In these cases you often see a single smaller bird chasing a larger bird in flight (sometimes two or three join the chase as the larger bird crosses territories).

In some cases you'll run across a group of birds harassing a perched predator. Often, several different species join forces to mob this common threat. The mobbing birds tend to use similar-sounding call notes, regardless of their species, and this may act to recruit other individuals to form a mobbing flock. It's this phenomenon that's behind the success of pishing, in which a birder imitates mobbing calls to bring birds into view. Our Birding Warblers video features a segment on pishing.

Mobbing calls may also act as warnings to other small birds, may call in even larger predators to go after the target of the mobbing, and may inform a predator that it has been spotted, causing it to move to another area with unsuspecting prey.

Owls in particular elicit intense mobbing behavior, as they often prey on sleeping birds. Smaller birds chase these predators out of their territories so that they will be safer at night. Owls are such frequent targets of mobbing—and so hard to see otherwise—that listening for mobbing calls is a good way to find owls during the day.

Mobbing usually does not harm the larger bird, although you may see blackbirds or kingbirds making contact with crows, hawks, or herons as they drive them off. But the behavior is tied more to driving away a predator than causing it injury. At the same time, mobbing is not as dangerous to the smaller birds as it may look, either. The lack of surprise, and the greater maneuverability of the mobber, take away much of the predator's advantage.

Past Questions of the Week

Q. How long do wintering Snowy Owls stay with us before they return to their breeding grounds?

Q. I’m getting a little tired of winter—What are some of the first spring birds to arrive, and when will they get here?

Q. It's winter and I live in the north. What are two dozen American Robins doing in my yard in the middle of January?

Q. How do birds survive in very cold temperatures?

Q. Do bird songs have frequencies higher than humans can hear?

Q. My feeders are being overrun with pigeons and blackbirds who eat all the food and keep the nicer, smaller birds away. What can I do?

Q. How can I share my bird photos with the Lab?

Q. Where did the domestic turkey come from?

Q. Will birds use nest boxes to roost in for warmth during the winter?

Q. How do I keep the squirrels in my yard away from my feeders and bird seed?

Q. Where did all my birds go? I've been feeding birds for years, but for the past week I haven't seen any. Should I be concerned?

Q. How can an owl catch a mouse underneath a foot of snow in total darkness?

Q. Why don’t birds collide when they are flying close together in tight flocks?

Q. I've found a sick or dead bird. Does it have West Nile Virus?

Q. I often see birds on telephone wires while I’m driving—how do I figure out what they are from such a short glimpse?

Q. Why do female Belted Kingfishers have an extra rust-colored “belt” that the males don’t have?

Q. Why do migratory birds crash into buildings at night and how can people prevent it from happening?

Q. Where can I go to watch hawk migration?

Q. Why do migratory birds crash into buildings at night and how can people prevent it from happening?

Q. I thought geese migrated south in the winter and north in the summer. Why did I just see a flock of Canada Geese flying northwest in September?

Q. Where can I go to watch hawk migration?

Q. I have a bald bird at my feeder. Is it sick?

Q. How are coffee and birds related?

Q. Brown-headed Cowbirds are reared by other species… How do they know they are cowbirds when they grow up?

Q. How do we keep ants out of our hummingbird feeder?

Q. Is it okay to keep feeding birds in the spring and summer?

Q. What is the Migratory Bird Act?

Q. There's a bird nesting near my house. How can I help it succeed?

Q. It sounds like there are birds stuck in my chimney. What should I do?

Q. I found a baby bird on the ground. What should I do? I don't want it to die.

Q. Why is a bird constantly attacking my window?

Q. What predators are threats to Great Blue Herons?

Q. Do cardinals get brighter in winter?

Q. Why do some birds stand on one foot?

Q. What do small birds do in a storm?

Q. There's a hummingbird at my feeder in the dead of winter? Will he be okay?

Q. How do eagles survive when all the lakes are frozen?

Q. How can we get rid of a starling roost near our house?

Q. Do all birds have gizzards?

Q. Do birds store food for the winter?

Q. Do hummingbirds migrate in flocks?

Q. Can you see migrating birds on weather maps?

Q. How do birds prepare for migration?

Q. Should I stop feeding hummingbirds in the fall so that they wil migrate?

Q. Lately I haven't been hearing birds singing in the morning. What happened?

Q. Do birds recognize their parents after they have grown up?

Q. Why do birds leave the nest before they can fly?

Q. Do parent and baby birds recognize each other's songs and calls?

Q. I found a baby bird on the ground. What should I do? I don't want it to die.

Q. If I handle a baby bird, won't its parents pick up my scent and abandon it?

Q. A bird is singing all night long. How can I get it to be quiet?

Q. A bird has left its nest. Should I raise the eggs myself?

Q. Why do birds have such varied and elaborate courtship rituals?

Q. How can I get rid of a hawk at my feeder?

Q. Which birds are the best mimics?

Q. Why don't birds get cold feet?

Q. Where can I find a list of all the birds in the world?

Q. Do hummingbirds migrate in flocks?

Q. I keep finding dead birds under my picture windows! What should I do?

Q. Should I stop feeding hummingbirds in the fall so that they will migrate?

Q. I've been hearing bird songs in the morning since spring, but suddenly it's quiet! Why?

Q. My goldfinches look patchy and weird! Are they sick?

Q. How do hurricanes affect migrating birds?

Q. What should I do if I find a sick bird?

Q. I saw a Chipping Sparrow feeding a Catbird! What's going on?

Q. I've heard birds can eat their own body weight in a day! Is that true?

Q. There is a larger egg with speckles in a nest with four other smaller white eggs. What's going on?

Q. What bird species is the most beneficial to man?

Q. Could the bird that is nesting here be the same one as last year?

Q. I accidentally scared some young birds into leaving their nest! What should I do?

Q. Does rice cause birds stomachs to explode?

Q. Why do birds leave the nest before they can fly?

Q. A junco keeps attacking my windows! What's going on?

Q. What is the difference between a bill and a beak?

Q. A bird is singing all night long outside. What is it, and how can I get it to be quiet? —David

Q. I found a baby bird on the ground. What should I do? I don't want it to die.

Q. A mother bird has abandoned her nest! Should I try to raise the eggs myself?

Q. Why is a bird constantly attacking my window?

Q. There's a strange partly white bird in my yard. What is it?

Q. Why are cardinals brighter in winter?

Q. Why do some birds stand on one foot?

Q. What should I do with my old binoculars?

Q. How do I ID this strange bird in my yard?

Q. There are bluebirds in my yard, even though I live outside their winter range! Is something unusual going on? —Jodi

Q. How can I get rid of all the starlings around my house?

Q. Why are some birds found out of their normal range more than others?

Q. How can I attract a Pileated Woodpecker to my feeder? —Maggie

Q. I have fewer birds this winter! Could the oil spill in the Gulf have affected birds in Illinois? —George

Q. Should we set out nesting material in winter?

Q. A woodpecker is pecking holes in my house! What should I do?

Q. Do all birds have gizzards?

Q. I've heard you can tell if birds are migrating on a particular day by looking at a weather map! How does that work?

Q. I want to make my own birdseed mix. What should I know?

Q. Can anyone help the Whip-poor-wills?

Q. How do we keep ants out of our hummingbird feeder?

Q. Do hawks flock together?

Q. Can you help me identify these dark, long-necked birds?

Q. What are these birds nesting in my chimney? —Patti

Q. Is West Nile virus killing off my Blue Jays? —Rosemarie

Q. Why are loons chasing each other across my lake? —Judy

Q. My babies have hatched and flown. Should I clean out the nests for future use? —Steve

Q. Please could you tell me if pelicans have teeth? —Ewan

Q. This afternoon I opened my door and a beautiful white and gray dove walked into my garage. It went to an empty hutch so I gave it fresh water and food. It was very tame. One leg has a plain green band and the other leg has a red band with numbers on it. What should I do?

Q. I've just upgraded my optics. What should I do with my old binoculars?

Q. Can you give me a list of the birds most frequently seen, or known to reside, in the Gulf of Mexico? I cannot seem to find a list anywhere on the Internet. If the list is too extensive, could you tell me which birds in the Gulf area are endangered or threatened (especially by the BP oil spill)? —Lynn

Q. I recently moved to the top (28th) floor in a high-rise condo building close to the lakefront in Chicago. I was an active bird watcher and had many feeders in my backyard in the suburbs. Do you have any suggestions for feeding/feeders or will I be wasting my time? I have a 13 x 17 foot terrace with glass doors. I would like to put out a feeder. —Michael

Q. I live in Southern California and recently have noticed small compacted bundles of what appears to be fur and small bones scattered under a large pine tree in my yard. Someone said it is from owls regurgitating what they can't digest. Is this true?

Q. While trying to take a picture of a mother Blue Jay sitting on her eggs, I unintentionally spooked her. She flew away and has not returned to her nest. Will she ever return & what if she doesn't what will happen to her eggs? Should I bring them in & try to hatch them myself?

Q. Do birds play?

Q. I found a baby bird on the ground. What should I do? I don't want it to die.

Q. My husband bought me a really great pair of binoculars, but whenever I try to look through them, everything sort of blacks out and I can’t see a thing. How can I adjust them?

Q. A bird keeps flying into my window, on purpose! Why is it doing this? I'm afraid it will hurt itself. What should I do?

Q. I’m interested in doing more than just looking at my backyard birds, but isn’t birding an expensive hobby, with state-of-the-art equipment and a lot of travel?

Q. Why don't birds get cold feet?

Q. How can Bald Eagles survive in northern areas after all the lakes have frozen?

Q. Why do birds have such elaborate and varied courtship rituals?

Q. I live in the woods in northern Minnesota, and I often wake up to a Winter Wren singing near my cabin. How does such a tiny bird produce so many sounds so quickly?

Q. We live in South Philadelphia, in a row home, so I have been a witness to several unusual mimicries by starlings. They imitate cats, and my boyfriend's motorcycle alarm. I was wondering if this is normal behavior for a starling? The cat call in particular is so realistic that I spent 10 minutes looking for the "cat" before I realized that it was a bird. (from Alitzah)

Q. There's a strange partly white bird in my yard. It looks like a chickadee except for some completely white feathers on its head and wing. What is it?

Q. How do you pronounce a scientific name? What's the proper pronunciation for this bird species, Tympanuchus phasianellus?

Q. How much does a bird eat? (from Bill)

Q. Have I been seeing the same Great Blue Heron for 28 years? (from Carolyn)

Q. I've seen a crow with tags on its wings. What is it? (from David)

Q. Are turkeys bred and eaten in Europe? (from Kat)

Q. Do birds store food for the winter? (from Tim)

Q. Who is the "Lincoln" that the Lincoln's Sparrow is named for? (from Mary)

Q. How can I keep birds from hitting my windows? Hawk decals don't seem to work. (from Buzz)

Q. Why are Blue Jays far more noisy in fall than earlier in the summer? (from Linda)

Q. There's a flock of 25 birds that look like female cardinals in my tree. What could they be? (from Aubrey)

Q. Is it possible I've heard a whole flock of swans migrating overhead late at night? (from Carol)

Q. Is there a simple way to get rid of or eradicate starlings? (from William)

Q. Do bird songs have frequencies higher than humans can hear?

Q. I've heard you can tell if birds are migrating on a particular day by looking at a weather map! How does that work?

Q. Do vultures find dead animals by smell or by tracking predators or scavengers on the ground?

Q. How do birds prepare for long migrations?

Q. There are so many field guides to choose from! How do I pick one?

Q. Why can't penguins fly? (from Jean)

Q. I live in a high-rise apartment with a tiny balcony. Is there any way I can attract birds all the way up on the 17th floor?

Q. We're watching some Canada Geese at work and starting to wonder if these babies will recognize their parents after they're grown up?

Q. Do birds sleep, and how? (from Jean)

Q. We have an Aunt that insists the only name is "Canada Goose." We believe we can also say "Canadian Goose." Are we wrong? (from Sandy)

Q. Do birds come to feeders because they see the seed or can they smell it? (from Charlotte)

Q. Is there any way for me to protect my Sparrow's bird house from an aggressive Blue Jay? (from Bernadette)

Q. There is a larger egg with speckles in a nest with four other smaller white eggs. What birds in N New Jersey tend to 'borrow' others' nests for their eggs? (from Debbie)

Q. We have baby ducks in our fountain at work that are being picked off by crows.  Is there any way to save them? (from Sandi)

Q. What makes Indigo Buntings look new?

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