Sunday, November 2, 2008

Black Birds

For some time, I’ve considered the fact that I can’t tell the blacks apart. They all look the same! Oh sure, if they gather in crowds, you can find subtle differences; but mostly all I see is differences in size. For example, only if the Red-winged Blackbird chooses to flash his red epaulets can you know he is a RWBL. In my mind, the only way to tell a Brewer’s Blackbird from a Common Grackle…is size. I just cannot tell these big black birds apart; other than one is nine-inches long and the other twelve and a half! Oh sure…there are subtle difference, too; but I am not yet good enough to automatically see those and know.

Months ago, earlier in this year…I took many photographs of large groups of black birds. It was easy to see the Yellow-headed ones, and by and large the RWBL were pretty easy, as well. And when a Great-tailed Grackle joined them…it was easy to spot at 18” tall. Still…I had Common Grackles, too, and even Brown-headed Cowbirds. I just know I probably also had Brewer’s Blackbirds back then, too. But, the BHCO were easy to spot…they are so small, and they walk differently, also; sort of skulking along (though perhaps that is a characteristic I’ve applied to them myself). And, the cowbirds have dark eyes.

The point is, today I’ve watched several black birds at my feeders; all of which have bright yellow eyes. Some are quite large…but don’t have that spectacular ‘boat-tail’; and they aren’t as big as Great-tailed Grackles. Still, I will watch 3-4 black birds; coming and going and trading off with others of the same…and I am convinced I’m seeing two different sizes of bird; two different species: Brewer’s Blackbird and the Common Grackle.

Oh yes, the bill is the most common ‘field marker’…or distinguishing feature. The BRBL’s bill is smaller and thinner, the Grackles’ is larger and thicker. Also, the COGR’s tail is longer…even when not as dramatic as
the boat-tailed bird. The problem for me is…I’m pretty new at this; distinguishing subtle features in quick, active birds.

I have included links (above) to thousands of photos of each species; pages and pages of pictures. I use that ‘Images’ feature on Google, not bothering to follow the links, just to look at the birds. Lordy, but these two are similar! I also have purposely included photos in this piece to show just that; it’s not always easy to quickly discern a lighter bill or 2-3” difference in size when the birds are not standing right next to one another. But, I’ll learn! Oh, and just to complicate things, there is also the Rusty Blackbird…but I’m betting it is unlikely I’d see one of them (besides they have dark eyes and plumage is browner during the winter.)

Don't know the 4-letter Alpha-code for birds? Click here.

Brewer’s Blackbird

Common and widespread. Adults have a pointed bill. Adult males have black plumage; the female is dark grey. The male has a bright yellow eye; the female's is dark. They resemble the eastern member of the same genus, the Rusty Blackbird; however, this bird has a shorter bill and the male's head is iridescent purple. This bird is often mistaken for the Common Grackle but has a shorter tail. The call is a sharp check which is also distinguishable.

These birds are often permanent residents in the west. Other birds migrate to the southeastern United States and Mexico.

They forage in shallow water or in fields, mainly eating seeds and insects, some berries. They sometimes catch insects in flight. They feed in flocks outside of the breeding season, sometimes with other blackbirds.

Common Grackle

Uncommon. The 12.5” long adult has a long dark bill, pale yellowish eyes and a long tail; its plumage is an iridescent black, or purple on the head. The adult female is slightly smaller and less glossy.

The breeding habitat is open and semi-open areas across North America east of the Rocky Mountains.
The nest is a well-concealed cup in dense trees (particularly pine) or shrubs, usually near water; sometimes, the Common Grackle will nest in cavities or in man-made structures. It often nests in colonies, some being quite large.

This bird is a permanent resident in much of its range. Northern birds migrate in flocks to the southeastern United States.

The Common Grackle forages on the ground, in shallow water or in shrubs; it will steal food from other birds. It is omnivorous, eating insects, minnows, frogs, eggs, berries, seeds, grain and even small birds.

Oh my

I just read (in Bill Thompson’s Identify Yourself: the 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges), that many blackbirds exhibit a high degree of sexual dimorphism (males & females look different). However, the Common Grackle is fairly unisex…though the female is significantly smaller and with a less obviously keeled tail. Dang…I’m gonna have to re-think what I’m seeing...again! Yes, I removed the BRBL from my
November bird list.

Photos from Wikipedia


me ann my camera said...

A great post!!! And I agree with the confusion aspect of trying to sort one blackbird from another. However, perhaps I am fortunate in that in our area the only Grackle we get is the Common one, tho I have seen the Boat-tailed ones in Florida. Blackbirds aren't too much of a problem either as our choice is Red-winged and that's mainly it, tho in the past year I did see some Rusty Blackbirds in my yard. We don't have Brewer's here either.

Thank you for your visit to my blog and your lovely comments.

Beverly said...

Well thank you!

Of course I don't have much trouble with Red-wings either... now that I know they can hide their red. A confession: I actually thought I was watching Try-colored Blackbirds for several days! LOL

With a five inch difference (not to mention that spectacular tail) in the two Grackles...there's not much problem there. Even the Brown-headed Blackbird isn't much of a problem; it's the golden-eyed birds that flummox me.

Perhaps if I knew for certain when/if I’m looking at a Brewer’s and not a female Common Grackle…I’d learn something. Yes, the Rusty is likely difficult as well; but according to the ‘maps’…I’m not likely to see one here. Thank the gods; they are only ‘rusty’ part of the time; they, too, have those golden eyes. Sheeshhhhhhh

I’m hoping when/if I do see a Brewer’s Blackbird…the bill is going to look significantly different than a Grackle’s…in spite of what the pictures in my piece indicate, the books insist there is quite a discrepancy.

Ain’t birding F U N ?

LOL Thanks for stopping by!