For the Birds Radio Program: Blackbirds and Black Birds

Original Air Date: June 6, 2000 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: April 2, 2004

When is a black bird not a blackbird?

Duration: 4′20″


(Recording of “Blackbird, Bye Bye”) .

Everywhere in the Northland, people are noticing black birds. Starlings are waddling around on lawns, ravens are swooping in their nuptual flight, crows are nesting–everywhere you look there are black birds.

That is, unless you’re an ornithologist. Crows and ravens aren’t related to true blackbirds, in spite of the fact that they’re both black and birds. Crows and ravens are technically known as corvids, birds belonging to the the same family as that most supreme of all birds, the Blue Jay. And starlings aren’t genuine blackbirds, either. They belong to an exotic species, introduced to North America from Europe, related to Mynas. Starlings, unlike native American blackbirds, aren’t protected by law, and unlike most birds, make excellent pets. They can easily be taught to talk if raised from an early age.

But there are some bona fide blackbirds around. Grackles are the species just about everyone notices this time of year. Males often chase each other around a neighborhood, and can be easily identified on the wing by their long, pointed tail. They’re jet black with an iridescent sheen, especially around the head and neck, and are bigger than Red-winged Blackbirds. Grackles, known to some as the “crow blackbird,” are heard as much as seen this time of year. Males make a variety of sounds which sound comical or irritating depending on your frame of mind.

(Recording of a Common Grackle)

These sounds serve mainly as communication calls between males–the similar sound of screeching tires produced by high school boys may well serve the same function. And the human counterpart of the grackle’s macho strut can often be seen on beer commercials.

Red-winged Blackbird males are unmistakeable. Although they nested almost exclusively in cattail marshes a century ago, they have expanded their habitat requirements as agriculture and urbanization altered the face of the continent. But even today they seem to prefer wetlands. My own personal favorite redwing is the one that nests in Duluth in the microscopic marsh on Arrowhead and Kenwood Avenue right in the FirstBank parking lot. I find it admirable for a bird to endure endless traffic noise and pollution and a marginal food supply just to cling onto his own minute piece of wetland. Once in a while I hear him call from the power line over the road as I drive past–if the traffic doesn’t drown him out.

(Recording of a Red-winged Blackbird) .

The cowbird is another true blackbird turning up again in the Northland. The male is easy to identify–he’s smaller than a redwing, with a black body and a brown head. The female is much trickier–the easiest way to remember her is by her uniformly drab gray plumage, with absolutely no field marks.

The cowbird is fairly uniformly despised among ornithological circles because it doesn’t take care of its own young; instead, the female lays her eggs in the nests of other birds. This habit led Arthur Cleveland Bent to call the cowbird a “shiftless vagabond and imposter.” And its scientific name, Moluthrus ater, means “dark greedy beggar.” But even as parents cowbirds aren’t total failures. There are several known cases of female cowbirds feeding baby cowbirds, and there’s even one record of a cowbird mother valiantly fighting off a domestic cat that threatened one of her young.

So blackbirds may seem like vagabonds, but only to people who don’t know the full story.

(Recording from “Blackbird, Bye Bye”)