It's not unusual these last few days to walk outside in the morning and hear a cacophony. Given that we live out "in nature," this is not really a usual occurrence for us. We get the occasional noise of a jet flying overhead or of a car with a noisy muffler zooming by, but often it is so quiet that I can hear the slightest whisper of single bird taking flight or even, on a calm morning in fall, a leaf hitting the ground.
So a cacophony?! Not our normal fare. But it's early springtime, and the flocks of blackbirds are passing through. For some reason, I'm noticing them more than usual this year.
Coming home from Wichita last Wednesday evening, I saw a ribbon of blackbirds that literally went on at least 10 miles. It was a long, diffuse flock, maybe 100' across, flying north. Living in a landscape where the roads mark off the miles is useful occasionally - and this was one of those times. With each county road, my astonishment grew. The flock may have actually been longer, but I eventually lost sight of it as I drove straight on south (Kansas roads are funny that way) and the blackbird ribbon sinuously snaked off to the east.
The following morning, the cacophony was deafening as I stepped outside. When I rounded up the dogs and walked out to the Back 5, the trees and the ground in the neighbor's horse pasture were black with birds. Every so often a few blackbirds would rise up from the west end of our back pasture too, but the taller grass kept the majority of the flock hidden there. The bigger flare-ups sounded like a fire igniting as thousands of wings beat the air in unison.
Looking through my binoculars, the flock seemed to be made up primarily of red-winged blackbirds - a mix of males and females. Scattered in with them, however, I also saw brown-headed cowbirds, both male and female, as well. It seems a little early for the females to be headed north.
I hadn't brought my camera with me (preferring to carry my binoculars most mornings at this time of year), so I was reduced to using my cell phone camera to try to capture the sight. Most of the flock was just far enough away that I didn't think the optics of my phone would do it much justice, but I caught a couple flares of the flying flock that were a bit closer.
Imagining myself a farmer, I could feel my blood pressure rising as I thought about "weed seeds" being deposited. If the fields had been newly planted (which they aren't right now), I would have been livid about the loss of crop seed. Then switching to my biologist's mindset, I thought about the weed seeds being eaten, the overwintering insects and insect eggs being gobbled up, and the fertilizer being deposited. Overall, I suspect the flocks are probably beneficial as they visit our area. (And those "weed seeds being deposited"? The blackbirds' gizzards should be grinding most of those up - if the seeds aren't ground up, the birds aren't getting nutrition from eating the seeds.)
The other thought that keeps coming to mind is curiosity, specifically curiosity about what it was like 150 years ago. Were the flocks this big? Or bigger? Did they ribbon for miles and miles as they wended their way north? What part did they play in the prairie's ecology? The wandering flocks of passenger pigeons have been mythologized in our minds, but what about the migratory flocks of common blackbirds? I sense a springtime magic that was overlooked because it was so common. To paraphrase Garrett Hardy's famous essay title, it's probably a tragedy of the common...being overlooked and even villainized.