Birds of a feather flock together, especially Red-billed Quelea’s

Red-billed Quelea’s are a relatively common sight in a number of South Africa’s nature reserves and farmlands. These small seed eating birds can be predominantly seen flying from food source to food source and always in big numbers. These numbers will ebb and flow depending on the amount of food available and to make it quite difficult for predators to take any individual within the flock.

Red-billed Quelea (c) African Bird club

So why do they fly in such large numbers?

A large flock of birds means more eyes that are always on the lookout for predators. A similar example is that of sardines. Think of the well-known ‘sardine run’ that occurs each year along the South African West coast. When sharks or dolphins try to catch the fish, the sardines clump together into a ball-like shape and this means that the shark or dolphin can’t pinpoint which fish to grab so they end up missing. The same can be said for the Queleas. When a Peregrine Falcon approaches a flock they seem to almost come together. This confuses the Falcon and it just puts its feet out and hopes to make a kill. This way the whole flock survives the onslaughts of predator birds and their safety increases one-hundred fold. Should a bird stray it will be easy pickings for the Falcon, as the Falcon can now focus on an individual and earn itself an easy meal.

Do they not fly into each other?

When these small birds fly together in these large masses there seems to be synchrony of sorts, like a well-choreographed dance where everyone is on point.  These mass flights happen very quickly and each bird is tuned into its surroundings perfectly. When a bird suddenly moves into the path of the bird beside it, that bird will immediately react and move out of the way to avoid a collision. This is then repeated instantly and what we see at ground level is a flowing movement almost like a living wave of sand blowing in the wind.

A large flock of Red-billed quelea

The next time you get to see a massive flock of Red-billed Queleas, try to pick out an individual and then keep sight of it. Good luck!