Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Mockingbird Wing-Flash

Click on the photos to enlarge.  

A northern mockingbird landed on the ground near me and performed this wing-flashing behavior for which mockingbirds are famous. The bird took a a couple of quick steps, stopped, and in a few jerky movements lifted and spread its wings, showing off its white wing patches. Then it took a few more steps and did it again, as it made showy progress across the lawn.

Wing-flashing in mockingbirds is usually explained as a foraging technique that startles insects into view. There are other birds that hunt insects by flashing their wings like this; it's called flush pursuit. But mockingbirds flash their wings at other times, too, not just while foraging. They do it when confronting predatory birds like owls, and they do it in territorial disputes with other mockingbirds, for instance.

In 1960, ornithologist Robert Selander suggested that mockingbirds flash their wings in situations that make them anxious, like when they are on the ground exposed to predators. He thought the wing-flash was a kind of ritualized intention to fly that evolved as a social signal and acquired the coincidental benefit of flushing insects. Selander speculated that individual birds learned to associate wing-flashing with foraging through the positive reinforcement of enhanced hunting success.

Read the original paper "On the Functions of Wing-flashing in Mockingbirds" by clicking here. 


  1. I have to tell you that I believe a mockingbird did this wing flashing to warn me and my dog about a snake in my garden. It first got my attention by landing on top of a bush within feet of my head and once it saw that it had my attention, it jumped down to the ground and flashed its wings, at which time i noticed a black racer snake about 3 ft long in my garden, and the bird was within one foot of the snake. The bird then jumped back up to safety and i acknowledged his/her kindness because i would not have noticed the snake any other way.

  2. That's great. You were lucky to have a flashing bird on the scene to warn you.

  3. We feed a pair of mockingbirds a bit of cat kibble when they ask for it. When I bring out their few pieces of kibble onto the front porch, the male of the pair flashes his wings partially. He does not seem to be either angry or too apprehensive.... I am not sure what it means, but he has done it on repeated occasions. Indeed, I would say he nearly always does it. I take it as a form of greeting in this specific circumstance. It is always only a half flash, his wings are never held upright, nor are they fully extended by a long shot. He does not seem to be aggressive, nor even very hungry usually! Just seems happy to interact--I try to flash my half bent arms back at him, despite having no markings on my arms, in case it is a greeting.

    1. Well, that's adorable. I'm going to try flashing back next time, too. Thanks for the comment.

    2. Same here. I have 2 mockingbirds that respond when I open my front door to a particular whistle I created. They fly in and land at the edge of my porch, just feet away. They know they're getting blueberries. One is more bold than the other (he will sit just a few ft away from me when I'm outside weeding & squawk for berries. He will actually sit there & wait while I get up & go in the house to get some. When he first started coming up for the blueberries.. he did the wing thing a bit...sort of gently it seemed & never fully extended but I realized when I was looking up what that meant & landed here, I hadn't notice him doing it for a while now.