Synchronised flying by wattlebirds

I regularly get comments and questions from readers of this blog. It is one of the delights of having a blog. Today I received a question via my email contact form. I must admit I’ve never witnessed this strangely compelling activity on the part of Red Wattlebirds. Can any readers help?

I stumbled on your page while doing a search on what we call Synchronised Red Wattle Birds.  For the past few years we have noticed an interesting behaviour of 2 red wattle birds in our back yard (Coromandel Valley, South Australia).  They fly in unison from the back fence and land at the same time on the railing of our balcony. Then they squawk at each other turn around and fly off at exactly the same time and land again on the  back fence at exactly the same time. They can repeat this for up to 1/2 an hour at a time.

If one accidentally takes off before the other, it quickly returns, squawks and then they leave together. Have you seen this behaviour before and do you have any idea what it is all about? We thought maybe flight training for young but perhaps they are practicing for a synchronised flying competition.

It is great fun to watch and they look like they are having a super time.

Cheers Leslie

This sounds like they are having great fun. Could it be just play? Is it sexual behaviour? I’ve done a search of my reference books and there is no mention of this behaviour. Over to my readers – use the contact form or the comments section below.

Red Wattlebird

Red Wattlebird

Red Wattlebird

Red Wattlebird


19 Responses to “Synchronised flying by wattlebirds”

  1. Leslie Chisholm says:

    Thanks for posting this Trevor. Here’s hoping one of your readers has witnessed this before.

  2. Brenton H says:

    Perhaps they are in training for the ‘bird synchronised flying Olympics’??? LOL I have seem similar behaviour but not for quite such long periods. Wattle-birds seem very restless and where I wait at the bus stop at Para Hills, a pair are flying backwards and forwards from one tree to another on a regular basis. Do they nest at this time of year? Perhaps if they see humans watching them, they may be trying to distract? Fascinating subject.

  3. Trevor says:

    Thanks for your comments Brenton. The wattlebirds in our garden are also very active, being very bossy to all of the smaller birds, especially the pardalotes and thornbills. They even will tackle far bigger birds. For example, on Friday I saw one harassing three Little Ravens who happened to wander into the garden.

    They can be very aerobatic in their flight, but nothing like that reported by Leslie.

  4. Carol says:

    Leslie, I can think of two possibilities for this behaviour. The first possibility is that you have been observing “mate guarding” behaviour, which is common in Australian honeyeaters, including wattlebirds. Around breeding time the male can be seen closely following the female wherever she goes – while she selects a nest site and builds the nest, he literally won’t let her out of his sight. It can look as if the two birds are joined by an invisible piece of string. This behaviour subsides after the eggs are laid. The purpose is to stop her mating with another male – he wants to be sure any young are his, as he will be investing so much effort into the breeding attempt.
    The other possibility is that you are seeing a fledged youngster with its parent. The young bird will follow its parent hoping to be fed, until it becomes more independent. The squawks you report might be the begging calls (normally a short rising zzhwip). However this situation is not so likely to involve back and forth flying like you described.
    Leslie, do you think either of these situations could explain what you are seeing? Have you noticed any nest-building activity?
    To answer Brenton’s question, Red Wattlebirds generally nest between July and December.

  5. Trevor says:

    Hi there Carol,

    Thanks for your contribution. Certainly goes a long way to explaining this interesting behaviour. I appreciate your effort in taking the time out to answer these questions.

  6. Ken Rolph says:

    Wattlebirds are quite energetic. The pair who visit our backyard believe they own the red bottlebrush tree. When they arrive they will chase out the gangs of lorikeets and noisy miners who normally park there. They seem to know when the bottlebrush flowers appear. Most of the time I don’t see them around the yard.

    We had a deep dog water bowl in the middle of the backyard at one stage. The wattlebirds used to come down, perch on the tap and dunk themselves in the bowl. I could be sitting at our outdoor table reading the paper about a metre away and they would take no notice of me.

  7. […]     « Synchronised flying by wattlebirds […]

  8. Brenton H says:

    Thanks Carol for your informative information. Could anyone tell me why Magpie-larks and Willie Wagtails nest near each other? I have seen this many times. Is it more safety in numbers for the nests?

  9. Trevor says:

    Hi again Brenton,

    Birds of the same species often nest in close proximity to one another. But as you have observed, different species also nest close to one another. As you have suggested it is probably for mutual protection.

    My observations also show that Magpie-larks and Willie Wagtails often nest close to human habitations. Our resident WWs often nest within 20m of our house.

  10. Leslie Chisholm says:

    Hi Everybody,
    Thanks for your comments. I have had limited success in filming them and I have posted 3 videos on You Tube. Two synchronized events and one unsynchronized where the one bird takes off and then comes back squawks away at the slow one and then they go off together. Unfortunately they only did one run each time. By the time I notice they are doing it and race around and get the camera they are often done playing (or I have scared them off). I will keep trying to get them doing it multiple times because single events aren’t as impressive…it is case of right place right time and them not noticing me! If you have the sound on when you watch them you will notice the have a little chat to each other before they take off again. Links are below. Cheers Leslie

    Synchronised event 1:

    Synchronised event 2:

    Unsynchronised event:

  11. Leslie Chisholm says:

    Hello Carol:
    After they fly off the railing I have not noticed them very close together. They will be in different parts of the garden. Two years ago they did have a nest in a neighbouring gum tree but I can’t see that they are there this year and I have not noticed any nest building behaviour. Are you able to tell from the videos if one of the birds is a fledgling? Sorry the quality of the videos isn’t better; they are taken through the window or the screen door.

  12. Trevor says:

    Thanks for this Leslie.

    Ah – the joys of bird photography. Sometimes you get them, many times you don’t. For every photo I show here on my blog, there must be 20-30 that didn’t work out. That’s the beauty of digital cameras – endless “film”.

    Posting them on Youtube is the way to go rather than emailing them to me. Then posting a link here so others can see is also a good idea.

  13. Carol says:

    Hi Leslie. The first two examples do seem quite unusual behaviour and after seeing the videos I don’t think that my earlier suggestions (either mate guarding or a fledgeling with its parent) are the answer.

    While it’s difficult to tell from the very brief footage, my guess is that this is aggressive behaviour, a dominance dispute. In the first video the postures seem quite aggressive when they land on the railing together and turn to face each other momentarily. Although it gives the impression of being some sort of harmonious synchronisation, I think that each bird is actually trying to assert itself over the other.

    In the 3rd example I would assume that the bird which stays on the railing is the winner, holding its ground (note how, at one point it won’t let the other bird land again) and it eventually succeeds in chasing the other off. It would be interesting to see what behaviour occurs immediately before and after these events.

  14. Leslie Chisholm says:

    Hi Carol
    Very interesting. I never considered the possibility that it was aggressive and it will change how I look at and interpret the behaviour (and here I was hoping they were training for the birdy olympics like Brenton suggested). I will continue to try to get footage with them doing it multiple times.

    It is hard to see them at the other end because lately they have been landing in a tree in the neighbours yard but from what I can see the land at the same time, squawk at each other and then turn around and come back. Often what alerts me that they are doing it is the sound they make when they land on the balcony rail.

    Thanks so much again Carol. I’ll upload a multiple event video if I manage to get it.

  15. Carol says:

    Hi again Leslie,

    Bear in mind that I might be wrong, what I suggested was just my impression. If the birds are doing this behaviour for long periods then perhaps there’s an element of play as well. Playful rivalry, maybe? The only thing we really know is that birds are fascinating creatures and we never stop learning about them. Thanks for getting us all thinking and wondering about this unusual behaviour.


  16. Trevor says:

    And thanks from me too.

    While I have been following this discussion my attention has been focused on another of my articles about swooping Masked Lapwings (plovers) that has had many questions and comments on it in recent days. I’ve been trying to educate some young boys that it is not okay to harass the nesting plovers. I made a real breakthrough this morning with apologies from the 2 boys concerned – now they are asking sensible questions. Made me really happy to help change these boys’ attitudes towards birds.

    Don’t mind me – keep this discussion going – it’s fascinating.

  17. Leslie Chisholm says:

    I never gave it any thought the last few years that what the wattle birds were doing was something not commented on before. It was only when my web searches for the behaviour came up with no hits that I thought it might be something unusual. Yes, birds are amazing animals.

  18. Juanita says:

    I came across your blog whilst looking up these birds.. I have a 7 foot python that basks in my front windowsill (inside) and these plucky little birds keep swooping on him! There are only the occassional light taps on the glass so no-one’s getting hurt. Much to the delight of my (also indoors) cat, one of the birds is sitting on my outside sill right now watching the snake and making a LOT of noise. Is he telling his mates? Are these birds not scared of snakes?

  19. Trevor says:

    Hi there Juanita,

    Thanks for your comments. That is an amazing observation. Many species of birds are very respectful of snakes and lizards of all descriptions. Whenever we have a sleepy lizard in the garden (we have quite a few) they will give their warning calls. We only occasionally have a brown snake and they react the same way.

    The wattlebirds in your garden have discovered that they are safe from the python getting them, and hence the tapping on the glass. Brave little fellas. The ones doing could be warning the others – or bragging about how brave he is!

    Your python is obviously well fed and so couldn’t care less about the “meals on wings” on the other side of the glass!

    Thanks for giving me a good laugh. I can just picture the scene.

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