Sunday, February 19, 2012

Spring Blackbirds

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.


Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

I don't remember my dad being worried about the black birds on the fields. Now, when they would move into the yard and make a mess, that was not pleasant. Ha! It is an amazing sight.

Melanie said...

OOOOH. .I hate it when that many blackbirds show up at once. .They are SOOO loud!! We have a large tree belt. .and they seem to congregate there for a short time in spring. .And the yellow headed ones too. .I always forget how noisy they are. .and there are not nearly the amount you are showing there. .that would have been something to see!!

Gaia Gardener: said...

Sherlock, I'm sorry if I impugned your dad unfairly - that wasn't my intention. I can certainly see how one of those flocks right up by the house would create a horrible mess! For better or worse, my dogs are pretty good at keeping flocks of blackbirds from settling too close!

Gaia Gardener: said...

Melanie, how wonderful that you get the yellow-headed blackbirds mixed in with the regular flocks!!! There are a lot of people who have never seen a yellow-headed blackbird! And they are such cool looking birds!

Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

For some reason, the cows didn't seem to scare the blackbirds. Really, what would a cow do to them? And our dogs couldn't patrol the whole place at once. Too big. They ignored them a lot of the time.

Gaia Gardener: said...

The blackbirds probably saw the cows rather like bison - as a food source, scaring up bugs as they grazed!

greggo said...

I suppose that view is one good reason to live in kansas.