Friday, March 28, 2008

Black Clouds Descend

The spring influx of blackbirds has occurred at my feeders. This is the time of year when I always get discouraged about bird feeding, watching hordes of dark bodies descending on my yard and pushing the other birds out. The mixed flocks of red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, and common grackles seem to increase in number daily now. Yesterday I counted over 100 grackles at one time, and about 25 red-winged blackbirds. I've counted 22 cowbirds at once, too, although it's entirely probable there have been more. (I only count those on the ground or in the nearby bushes, not the flocks waiting in the treetops to join the feeding frenzy.)

It's the cowbirds that I particularly resent supporting. I know they were a normal part of the Plains' avifauna historically, but I also know how disruptive their populations have become to warblers and many other songbirds as human-wrought habitat changes have increased both their range and their sheer numbers. Of course, those human-wrought habitat changes have unfortunately also simultaneously decreased habitat for many of the other bird species that the cowbirds parasitize, compounding the population pressure the cowbirds exert.

As I watch the swirls of dark birds move in and out of my yard, I'm also uncomfortably aware of their metaphorical use in literature as harbingers of unpleasantness or even evil. I find that very ironic, given that it's human changes to the environment that are behind their unbalanced increase in numbers these days. Have fiction authors tapped into an unexplainable truth of nature: that large, unbalanced increases in the number of crows, jays and blackbirds signal coming distress for humans themselves?

Philosophical musings like this double my discomfort at hosting the black hordes, while my more rational self laughs and reminds me that these birds are migratory in spring and, with the exception of the cowbirds, territorial during nesting. Therefore this "problem" should be self-limiting.

But will my rational self or my emotional self win out in the when-to-quit-bird-feeding-for-the-season debate? Only time will tell....

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