Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 12, 2008

Four and Twenty

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:49 pm

This morning the day dawned clear in spite of the ground hugging fog. Right around 7:45 am the eastern sky was still pinkish orange in advance light of the sun. Moving across this natural canvas was a river of life coursing from the southeastern marshes to northwestern cornfields. Tens of thousands of blackbirds flew in column formation about 20 birds wide. I only watched them for a minute or so while attempting to count their numbers. I lost track after approximately a thousand were tallied. Given that there were as many coming off the horizon to the right of me as were diminishing on the horizon to the left of me, it’s safe to say my 10 grand figure was conservative. There certainly were more than four and twenty.

The sight of a mega flock of fall blackbirds instills different feelings in different creatures. For the farmer, this is a picture of destruction –dark birds bent on destroying what ever corn crop they can find. For the naturalist it is something to pause and stare at without assigning it a negative or positive connotation. To the sharp eyed Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk it is the promise of a full crop by days end should they be lucky enough to snare a few for dinner.

This time of year such a sight is common. Huge mixed flocks of blackbirds assemble in the autumn months before beginning their southward journey. These groups roost together overnight and then venture to ripened corn fields and feedlots at first light. Traditionally, by that I mean very long ago, these gatherings consisted only of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles, with a smattering of Brewer’s and Rusty Blackbirds. European Starlings presently make up a large component of these flights now that they have settled in within the past century. Although not related to the original mix, they share their hue and fondness for togetherness.

Today’s flock was “original” in nature, being mostly Red-wings and Grackles as far as I could tell.Because of the distance between them and me they appeared to be passing silently, but I knew better. As visually overwhelming as these collective flights are, their noise level is even more arresting. Every bird in the group is saying his or her piece as if to comment on the price of wheat in China or the quality of grain in Farmer Bill’s field. A human observer nestled right in the center of one of these gangs is overwhelmed with a deafening cacophony of cackles, chuckles, and generally cantankerous sounds. Listen here to a group I recently recorded and turn your sound all the way up to get the full experience (blackbird chorus).

Like it or not, these birds are just doing what comes natural. North American blackbirds are often called Troupials as a group to distinguish from the old world blackbirds. (The blackbirds that were baked in the limerical pie were actually members of the thrush family). This term comes from the French word “troupe” which literally means “a troop or bunch.” The scientific name of the Red-winged Blackbird begins with the word Agelaios which means “flocking” in the Greek tongue. So, you see, its part of their very being to collect into gangs of a like feather.

Spring and summer behavior is quite the opposite for these birds. Males compete for the attentions of the females and vigorously chase off rival males. They can not stand the presence of another of the same sex.Most of these creatures, especially the Red-wings, are insect eaters at this time of year as well.The end of the breeding season triggers the flocking itch and a switch to a whole grain diet. Along with the psychological changes, physical changes occur such as the browning of the feathers and the development of larger stomachs lined with stronger muscles.

Soon enough this maddening flock phase will pass. You’ll step out one day and notice that most of the blackbirds are gone for the winter (the Starlings, unfortunately, stay) and there will be a deep chill in the air. You might as well take in this spectacle while it- and your field corn – lasts.

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