The blackbirds are a tough bunch, and you could get into an argument about identification.
The Grand Forks County, N.D. checklist has four species with the name blackbird, but the family includes a number of other birds that are generally lumped under the name “blackbird,” notably the cowbirds and grackles, which indeed are black in color and thus candidates for confusion.
To be fair, the blackbird clan includes readily recognizable species, as well, including such unmistakable beauties as the Baltimore oriole and the western meadowlark, but that’s a matter for bird geneticists.
Subtracting the colorful members of the clan, there are eight species that might be encountered in our area, and only one is a guaranteed identification, the yellow-headed blackbird, whose bright yellow-orange head is a giveaway.
The red-winged blackbird is usually reliable, too, except that the bird sometimes hides his namesake field mark, and he isn’t the only blackbird with a red epaulet. The tri-colored blackbird is very similar, but shows more white than yellow in the shoulder patches. It’s a California bird, though, not to be found here.
As to the other possibilities, the bobolink is different enough to be identified by a close look. It is the smallest of the so-called “blackbirds,” and it shows quite a lot of white in the wings and on the lower back, the only one of our blackbirds with this pattern. The bobolink also has a distinctive yellow patch on the nape of the neck, but that’s not always easy to see.
The common grackle is relatively easy to identify, as well. It is a large, noisy bird, often showing iridescence in its otherwise dark plumage. This and its size should be enough to clinch its identification. The starling — not technically a blackbird species — also is often iridescent, but it is a pointy-looking bird, an impression exaggerated by the short tail and the rather long and bright beak (at least at this time of year).
Now it’s time for tough ones.
Brewer’s blackbird is about the same size as the red-winged blackbird and with the same potential iridescence as the grackle. The trouble is that the brown-headed cowbird is much the same in appearance. And sometimes, the red-winged blackbird hides those epaulets. Bird books encourage a close look at the head. This is useful in separating cowbirds from Brewer’s blackbirds, because the namesake brown head distinguishes the cowbird. Brewer’s may be — some books say “tend to be” — darker and potentially shinier on the head. But the clincher is the bright yellow eye. Cowbirds and red-winged blackbirds don’t have yellow eyes; grackles do, but of course they are bigger.
All of these species are common, even abundant. What’s more, they tend to flock together. Sorting one species out of a big flock is a challenge.
It gets worse.
The truly rare blackbird, and the prize among blackbirds that occur here, shares many of the physical attributes of its relatives, including size, and overall plumage. But unlike them, the rusty blackbird is both seasonal and rare. It is a bird of wet forests, such as occur across Manitoba’s midsection. The term “rusty” is ill-applied to the birds we see here; in eclipse plumage, the birds tend to be gray-brown in color, with a fairly distinct patch set off by that yellow eye. A hardy bird, the rusty blackbird shows up in early spring and late fall. It’s been recorded on Christmas bird counts, including last year’s outing, when one was seen — the same total for three other blackbird species, red-winged and Brewer’s.
Unbelievably, identification problems get even worse, especially if you’re sorting through a big group of blackbirds. All of the descriptions here apply to male birds; like many birds, blackbirds are dimorphic. While males bear plumage that attracts attention, females are usually streaked, the better to hide in the tall grasses where they nest.
That’s not a matter to worry about in early spring, in any case. Male blackbirds move north ahead of females. Red-winged blackbird males arrive here as much as three weeks ahead of females. The head start allows them to select and protect territories and to perfect the courtship routine that will attract mates.
In red-winged blackbirds, this involves both showing off the epaulets and sounding off.
Whether blackbirds sing is a subject for argument. My friend Ann-Marit Bergstrom, a pillar of the Devils Lake Chautauqua and a talented artist and musician, described the sound that blackbirds make as “a screech,” and added for emphasis, “I cannot stand it.”
Female blackbirds feel otherwise.
And for me, it’s really not spring until the blackbirds sing.