(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 30, 2007)
A well-known saying suggests, "Birds of a feather flock together." But what about birds that aren't alike; do they "flock together" too?
In my lake, they do.
Every morning I see them -- a white ibis, a little blue heron and a tricolor heron -- three totally different water birds with little in common except for a diet dependent on aquatic life. Yet, day after day, these three long-legged fish-eaters flock together like the best of friends.
Are they? Can wild birds be best friends with birds of a species different from their own?
I don't know why not. Dogs do it. Cats do it. In practice, these domesticated animals take "flocking together" to the extreme. They not only become fast friends with members of different breeds but also are often "friends with benefits," creating completely new breeds in the process.
But that's not what the birds in my lake are doing.
These three water birds are simply spending their time alongside each other doing what herons and ibises do in the wild -- hunting for fish.
They're not fishing in conjunction with each other -- there's no team effort involved in an attempt to channel fish into one section for easy capture by all.
They're just being feathery critters companionably working alongside one another in an independent but decidedly congregate fashion.
When one bird flies to a new stalking ground, its two cohorts spread their wings and follow. I've watched this happen over and over.
The lake I live by covers about 12 acres. There's plenty of room for these three predators to pursue their prey in separate areas, but they choose not to. Instead, they gather in one tightly clustered space until one of the threesome decides it's time to find new hunting grounds.
I wonder about this as I go for my morning rows. As I'm paddling, I watch the trio shift from one area of weedy shoreline to another. No one bird seems to dominate. There's no obvious leader and yet, there's a bond -- some mysterious bond -- that connects these three feeders one to the other.
Usually a great blue heron is fishing at the same time and, on occasion, a great egret will stop by to pursue a meal. But these larger birds seem to be loners. They demonstrate no attraction to the three smaller birds in their search for food.
If my observations are any indication, the bigger blue heron and white egret seem to prefer hunting on their own.
Is this decision to congregate a size thing? A competition? Or does some less honorable emotion, such as greed, envy or jealousy, motivate the little blue heron, the tricolor heron and the common ibis to spend so many hours in close proximity to one another?
I'd like to think the answer to that question is none of the above.
Like their human counterparts, I imagine the three birds to be friends who frequent the same watering hole each day.
Putting their differences aside, they have chosen to focus instead on what they have in common -- a love of fresh fish and a desire for a safe place in which to hunt their prey.
Maybe the birds silently communicate while combing the shallow water for edible tidbits.
Perhaps their conversations, if they have them, revolve around the weather, the diminishing water level or the preponderance of people overpopulating their habitats.
Who knows if my imaginings are true or merely the anthropomorphic ramblings of a bemused mind?
What I do know for certain is that watching these three different birds coexist so harmoniously in the lake fills me with hope.
We humans are an intensely diverse group. We come in a seemingly endless array of sizes, shapes and colors. Our backgrounds are as varied as our preferences and needs.
Like the birds in my lake, some of us are more at ease at the water's edge while others prefer the high ground. There are those who plunge forward eagerly regardless of the water's depths and others who hold back, timid and shy.
Despite these disparities, we have much in common. We all need food and a safe place to hunt for the things that matter.
If only people could put aside our differences and stand side by side in compatible silence with those who look different from us. If only we would learn to follow our separate paths while being respectful of others seeking different truths.
A lake is not the universe at large but a microcosm of the bigger picture.
Observing the birds that frequent the aquatic world outside my front door gives reason for pause. I can't help but wonder -- if birds of such different feathers can find a reason to flock together, maybe someday people will too.