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June 2012
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For red-wings, other migrating blackbirds, the more the merrier

By Steve Vantreese

This time of year it's not unusual for a flock of birds to fly over, and over ... and keep flying over for some time.

Different birds. Same flock. They just keep winging by in a seemingly endless stream.

What's going on in this scenario is that an amalgam of a few species that we lump together as blackbirds is coming from a roost in the morning or going back to a roost in the late afternoon.

Blackbirds of like and similar species gather together through fall and winter after they have migrated south from northern nesting territories. They congregate in sometimes huge communal roosts from which they fan out in the mornings to feed.

Ornithologists say blackbirds spew out in vast flight lines, the stream of birds breaking up at a distance as smaller flocks separate to go into feeding areas, often harvested fields in western Kentucky where they dine on waste grain and incidental weed seeds. Authorities say birds may scatter as far as 50 miles from their winter roosts.

The flocks may include common grackles, Brewer's blackbirds, boat-tailed grackles, European starlings and brown-headed cowbirds. These often break off into single-species flocks out in the hinterlands, mixing again as they merge back near the roost.

The most common species when the birds are mixed, however, is the red-winged blackbird. This species is long thought to be the most single abundant bird in North America. It nests from Alaska and across Canada all the way through the southernmost states and beyond into the West Indies and Central America.

Here in western Kentucky, we are a year-round red-winged blackbird habitat: They nest here, and the locals may or may not hang around all winter. We get a major influx of winter migrating birds that come visit from northern territories.

You may recognize only some red-wings. That's because they aren't birds of a feather even within their own species.

The male red-wing is solid black with name-earning red patches underlined with yellow on its shoulders. The colors show more boldly when they are in flight, although the view from below mostly shields them.

The female red-winged blackbird looks more like a big sparrow. She's not black at all, but rather the female is brown with streaks of white to cream. She lacks the vivid shoulder patch colors that the fellows of her species wear.

A very similar and plentiful cousin species that sometimes inhabits the same flocks is the common grackle. While the common grackle is black like the male red-wings, it lacks the colored shoulder patch and is longer. Red-wings are only about nine inches long, but common grackles can top a foot in length. If you get a close look, you might see that red-winged blackbirds have black eyes while grackles have yellow eyes.

When you don't get a close view, especially when seeing the flocks pass overhead, most all of them look like black birds, a good reason for the collective blackbird term. Most people who pay any attention can see the difference in flight for the short-tailed starlings and all the others. But at a distance in marginal light, the rest lose their distinguishing characteristics.

Resident red-winged blackbirds are scattered in nesting territories by spring. They prefer marsh-type habitats and they flourish in swampy areas, creek bottoms and wet, fallow fields. The males each stake out a nesting territory, singing an oak-a-LEE sort of call to advise other guy red-wings to stay out.

The male red-wing's song is kind of a soundtrack for a lot of spring fishing in the backs of bays on the big lakes or in small ponds. If you fish, you've heard it.

The daddy red-wing services several brides in his spring nesting territory. Five or more females, sometimes as many as 15, will nest in a male's claimed area. Each female typically produces two broods each spring, each with three to five eggs.

The nesting productivity of red-winged blackbirds seems to help keep the species' overall number stable. Ornithologists say the species has fluctuated little if any over a long while. The last official estimate of the red-wing population over North America was 190 million, give or take a couple.

And that's red-winged blackbirds alone. That doesn't figure in the other similar blackbirds, starlings and unrelated close associates.

That kind of abundance can lead to some whopper congregations when migrating blackbirds of various sorts get together at winter roosts. It's routine for a winter roost to number several thousand to more than 100,000 individual birds.

Roosts estimated at a million or more birds aren't rare. The clincher might be a winter roost that took shape once along the Virginia-North Carolina border. Officials figured it contained about 15 million birds.

Back in the 1970s, large winter roosts were more common in west Kentucky and northwest Tennessee. Nowadays, this area sees more flocks coming from roosts apparently in southern Illinois. One might wonder if that's an adaptation to warmer winters, a change that affected Canada goose migrations even more.

Because of excretive mess, noise and threats of disease that come with tens of thousands of birds holding nightly sleepovers, most area folks are probably glad blackbirds are finding bedroom communities elsewhere.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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