NATURE NOTES: Blackbird or Black Bird? (photo)

Brewer’s blackbirds hang out in muddy cow pastures and visit the Gulf Coast in the winter.

In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d talk a little bit about birds that are black, some of which are blackbirds and some of which are not.

The first one is the great-tailed grackle. If you’ve been to any shopping center along the Texas coast, you’ve seen a great-tailed grackle. The males are all black, the females rich brown and both sexes have very long, keel-shaped tails. They are fond of picking the insects off the grill of your car and will hop up off the ground to do so.

Currently, this species ranges from Louisiana to California, south through Central America and north to Colorado and Kansas, but in the early 1900s, their range barely extended into southern Texas. They have taken advantage of human-induced changes and now have one of the fastest expanding ranges in North America.

They do not migrate so they are with us year-round. In the winter, they congregate into huge roosting flocks that are quite noisy and can become a nuisance.

If you’ve been to Florida, you might have seen the very similar-looking boat-tailed grackle taking over the parking lot monitor job. Boat-tailed grackles range through all the Gulf states, including Texas, but they are confined to the salt marshes of the immediate coast except in Florida.

Another black bird we have is not a blackbird at all: the crow. They are much heavier bodied than the grackles, but because of the grackle’s long tail, they are about the same length. Crows also have a much heavier bill.

We have two crows in Texas but only American crows are widespread. Fish crows are found in East Texas, usually around water while American crows range is much larger. The American crow makes the typical “caw-caw-caw” sound we associate with crows.

Fish crows make a more nasal “anh-anh” kind of sound. While you might find an American crow walking around in a suburban park, you will rarely find them in parking lots.

In the winter, we have a couple of other all-black birds.

One is the common grackle. This is the species of grackle most likely to raid your bird feeder along with the red-winged blackbirds. They are a bit smaller than the great-tailed grackle and don’t have the keeled tail. They look more like the red-winged blackbird they associate with than the great-tailed grackle, but they don’t have the red marks on their shoulders.

As with the crow, they won’t be found walking around a parking lot, so don’t look for them there.

The final black bird I’ll mention is the brewer’s blackbird. This species is also in our area only during winter. Their favorite hangout is in the muddy areas of a cow pasture, especially around the feed bins where they pick up leftover grain.

This is a really gorgeous bird. The males are glossy, greenish-bluish black and the females are a gentle shade of gray. They are quite common further west and south but you have to look a bit to find them in the eastern part of the state.

So now you know when someone talks about black birds, you have to ask if they mean black birds or blackbirds!

Susan Heath, Ph.D., is an avian conservation biologist for the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, 299 Highway 332 W. in Lake Jackson. Contact the observatory at 979-480-0999 or visit gcbo.org.

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