Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 14, 2007

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:47 pm

  The sight of ten thousand blackbirds darkening the autumn sky during migration can be an awe inspiring site.  Usually we see these mega flocks engaged in complex flight maneuvers over a distant cornfield, but it’s not uncommon to find our yards invaded by one of the hordes. When in the midst of such a foraging flock of feathered fall fowl the cacophony of life can be humbling and deafening. Rather than invoke Hitchcockian images, however, I’d like to present a few seasonal blackbird flock watching tips and give your mind a few things to do while your eyes are engaged.

  First of all, there is no such thing as a plain ‘blackbird,” so there is no such thing as a flock of ‘em.  The fall flocks are actually made up of many different kinds of blackbirds and the largest flocks are simply made up of black birds.  Birds of a feather do flock together, but they don’t all have to be of the same exact feather. 

  True blackbirds are in a North American family called Icteridae.  It’s a diverse bunch containing grackles, cowbirds, and red-wing blackbirds.  Most of them are mostly black, but several are extremely bright in color.  The yellow-breasted Meadowlarks and the fire orange Baltimore Orioles are members of this family also.  Although their iridescent hues and patches of color are anything but plain, the mostly black blackbirds are the ones that gather into large groups.

  Oddly enough, the big number birds in any blackbird flock aren’t really blackbirds at all, because they go to a different family reunion. They are members of a group called the Sturnidae, but we know them better as Starlings. 

  Within any gang of migrants, then, you are apt to see four different kinds of “birds of a darker nature.” There are a few others, but the big four are common summer residents.

  Common grackles (see here) are the largest of the bunch at 12 inches in length.  They have long tails, long black beaks and bright yellow eyes (a trait that gives them an especially mischievous look).  The females are basically brown, but have the same body plan. If you hear individual birds creaking like a rusty gate, then you are hearing grackles.

  Red-winged Blackbirds (see here a photo from a “Birds of Eastern Washington” website) don’t show much of their bright red shoulder epaulettes in the fall and their rich black feathering is speckled with brown. Overall, they appear as smaller versions of the grackles when in flight. The females are streaked brown.  Red-wings utter a worrisome “check check” call when flocking.

  Brown-headed Cowbirds (see here a picture from the thinkquest web site) are smaller than the Red-wings and have conical bills rather than the pointy ones possessed by the first two mentioned blackbirds. The males have brown heads (obtained from following cattle too closely perhaps?) and a black body.  The females are, as you’ve probably guessed by now, brown.  Their bubbly “twoleep” call will be overwhelmed by the other birds, so don’t bother listening for it.

  Last, and certainly least in the minds of some folks, are the Starlings.  The best way to tell if you are viewing a bunch of these birds is to note their very short tails (see here- a picture by Christopher Gunn).  They are about 6 inches long, have long beaks, and are wonderfully speckled when in fall color.  Starlings probably out number all the other birds combined and, although they take part in this fall frenzy thing, many stay here throughout the winter. 

  Starlings originally came from Europe, which is why they are listed in the bird guides as European Starlings (go figure).   We can thank William Shakespeare for their introduction to the New World, although he didn’t do it personally.  Over a century ago, some dedicated literary fans decided to release into North America all the birds mentioned by the bard.  Since Starlings figure in his prose, 100 of them were released in 1890 into Central Park within New York City. These birds went forth and multiplied and now number in the millions.

  In Denmark, where native starlings gather by the millions to travel toward Africa, their dense ball-like flocks are called “sorta sol” or black suns. The first French explorers and voyageurs in this area noted large populations of “starlings” around Lake Erie two hundred years ago, but they were actually referring to our native blackbirds – mostly red-winged blackbirds.  All of our fall flockers form black sun groups.

  These huge gatherings function almost as living beings in and of themselves- ebbing and flowing like a school of fish.  Each bird keeps his distance from the ones nearest it and can turn and dive in complete synchrony.  A phenomenon, which I have un-euphoniously dubbed the “hawk ball,” is an example of this group coordination. When a hawk is spotted, the birds will actually approach the potential danger rather than flee it. They form themselves into a tight ball formation and keep pace with the predator while it is in their air space.  The idea is to overwhelm the bird and make it difficult to target any individual within the flock.  This tactic usually works, but I once witnessed a wily Cooper’s hawk dart straight up into a “hawk ball” of starlings and fly away with one in his talons.

  Aside from the safety in numbers idea, there is one more thing that brings dark birds together – food.  Migrants groups are infamous for their crop raiding abilities and will descend onto a cultivated field of small grain and render it asunder. Group feeding acts to thoroughly glean all the food resources from a relatively small area.  One can see why farmers aren’t especially happy to see these feathery fall harvest gatherings.

  Jacque Lery, in his 1749 journal, recorded that there were so many blackbirds issuing from the marshes on the French side of Lake St. Clair (Ontario) that he doubted that any grain crop could survive.  The birds did so much damage that he doubted that the small settlement there could survive.  That small settlement is Windsor today.  Thank goodness the casinos pulled the community through, eh?


  1. Thanks for sharing, this is a fantastic blog article. Much obliged.

    Comment by Darrell Grammer — February 6, 2012 @ 9:39 pm

  2. Thanks again for the blog article.Really looking forward to read more. Great.

    Comment by Beatrice Beiler — February 28, 2012 @ 2:44 am

  3. My dream retirement just includes that I’m able bodied enough to enjoy it. I suppose I’d just like to live by water.

    Comment by Ross Poplaski — June 1, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

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