BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Blackbirds

While I won't be talking here about birds in general that are black, I could have used some help with that back in '62. Starting from scratch as a rookie in the Chicago suburbs, I had no idea there was any difference between crows, starlings, and grackles. They were just black birds that all looked alike, though I soon figured out a crow was bigger than a grackle, and the first time I really looked at a starling....well, its combination of yellow bill, white spots, and iridescent colors made it about the prettiest bird I'd ever seen!

But for the time being, let's just stick with blackbirds, i.e., birds in the family Icteridae. Now, perhaps some of you may be thinking: "Blackbirds? You mean like grackles and cowbirds? Eww!" A pretty common perception, perhaps, but a misguided one, nonetheless. You see, when you talk about blackbirds, you're referring to the family which includes Bobolink, the meadowlarks, and orioles. In checklist order, here's the list of the 14 Icterids which have occurred in Minnesota:

• Bobolink

• Red-winged Blackbird

• Eastern Meadowlark

• Western Meadowlark

• Yellow-headed Blackbird

• Rusty Blackbird

• Brewer's Blackbird

• Common Grackle

• Great-tailed Grackle

• Brown-headed Cowbird

• Orchard Oriole

• Bullock's Oriole

• Baltimore Oriole

• Scott's Oriole

So, fella, you got a problem with the blackbird family? So this means you can't stand Bobolinks, meadowlarks, and orioles either? I suppose you recoil at the sight of the first singing Red-winged Blackbirds in spring displaying their gold-tipped red wing patches. And hold a grudge against the yellow splashes of color from Yellow-headeds brightening a background of brown cattails. My friend, you need to step out of the darkness and into the light....take a second look....appreciate the bronze-and-blue iridescence of a Common Grackle and the glossy blues and deep greens on a male Brewer's Blackbird! Can I get an Amen, brother? Hallelujah!

True, I admit I'm hard pressed to come up with anything good to say about the appearance of female blackbirds/grackles/cowbirds, and that brown-and-black combination on a male cowbird is far from artistic. Still, this is an interesting family presenting some interesting identification challenges.

Eastern and Western meadowlarks. Been there, done that. As much as I appreciate meadowlarks and like to talk about them, their ID issues were already discussed in a fairly recent Hindsight installment and don't really need another look this soon: see

Bobolink. I still remember that Minnesota Birding Weekend in August years ago when a Bobolink appeared in front of us, and not one birder in the group knew what it was. Their mass confusion was surprising at the time, but since then it's become easier to see why some Bobolinks present ID problems. Unless it's a male in spring through mid-summer, Bobolinks are relatively nondescript, with adult males losing their striking plumage by August before they head south. More than anything else, I think they look like large Le Conte's Sparrows. Indeed, someone on a tour once excitedly reported he'd found a Le Conte's nest, which would be quite an accomplishment, only to discover later the attending female was a Bobolink.

I don't think males in full plumage could be mistaken for much, though I wonder if some reports of Lark Buntings in Minnesota have actually been briefly-glimpsed Bobolinks. After all, I have been known to slam on the brakes and turn around only to find that black bird with white wing patches seen out of the corner of my eye turn into a Bobolink, rather than the hoped-for Lark Bunting.

My final note about the Bobolink is, well, the call note. With practice, many birders become familiar with its distinctive ink call and can detect birds flying overhead. Be aware, though, that Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Baltimore Orioles, and especially American Goldfinches can all give a similar note, and it's best to actually see the caller if the date or place involved would be unusual for a Bobolink.

Red-winged Blackbird. I have long been convinced that female Red-wingeds are the most misidentified – or, at least, unidentified – birds of them all. Brown, heavily streaked, with a pale line above the eye, they look nothing like the males. More than once I've had casual or beginning birders ask what they are and refuse to believe that my ID as female Red-wingeds could be correct. Some beginners are also confounded when adult males conceal their red wings, perhaps only showing that buff edge. A more intriguing situation is when apparent adult males even fail to show any red in flight. I've only seen this a few times in spring, and apparently some second-year males can look wholly black like adults but show little or no red on their wings.

At least we don't have to deal here with separating Red-wingeds from Tricolored Blackbirds, which can be a tricky proposition. However, I've sometimes been with birders hundreds of miles from California who think they might have seen a Tricolored, but more likely it was just a Red-winged with a whitish-looking edge to the red – and the birders just forgot to consult their field guide's range maps. Speaking of white, note that Red-wingeds and other blackbirds (especially grackles) seem to show partial albinism more than most passerines, so don't be too surprised or disappointed if that curious bird you find with white patches turns out to be nothing more than a blackbird.


Yellow-headed Blackbird. I have to wonder what juvenile Yellow-headeds really look like, and how often they might be misidentified as something else. Take a second look at these in your Geographic and Sibley guides, which I admit I've not really done before today, and you'll see what I mean. Their illustrations of this plumage differ quite a bit, and there must have been some confused birders if juveniles really resemble Sibley's illustration. But I don't recall ever seeing a bird like he shows, which would be odd, since almost invariably I've found Sibley's illustrations superior to Geographic's. In this case, though, I'm pretty sure the few juveniles I've ever paid attention to looked more like the picture in Geographic.

My only other comment about this distinctive species is how often the male's yellow head curiously fails to shine out like a beacon among a flock of blackbirds. There must be something subtle I can't explain about its shade of yellow, since I often fail to detect a Yellow-headed in a mixed flock until it flies and its white wing patches are the first thing to catch my eye.

Rusty and Brewer's blackbirds. There's something about these two birds I've always liked. For one thing, the Rusty has two reasons for its name (while many species seem to have none!): its "rusty-hinge" song and the rusty tones of its plumage in fall/winter. The other thing you have to appreciate is how Rusty and Brewer's females are typically easier to separate (i.e., by eye color) than the males, a quite atypical situation among birds.

(Incidentally, I recommend seeing eye-to-eye with blackbirds, grackles, and cowbirds when working on their IDs. Iris color is something surprisingly easy to see, and they rather neatly divide into two groups as you sort through a flock: pale iris = Rusty Blackbird, male Brewer's Blackbird, Common Grackle, or Great-tailed Grackle; dark iris = Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird, female Brewer's Blackbird, or Brown-headed Cowbird. One important caveat, however, is to beware of the juveniles of the "pale-eyed" species, which can be disconcertingly dark-eyed into their first spring.)

But distinguishing Rustys from Brewer's can be the most difficult ID challenge among Minnesota blackbirds, and one helpful consideration can simply be the season. If it's mid-May through August, you can be pretty certain it's not a Rusty, which no longer regularly breeds in northern Minnesota's boglands. On the other hand, you are usually safe to assume it's not a Brewer's from December through February, since there are very few documented winter records of this species.

It turns out that spring is the hardest time to tell these two apart here, since this is the only time that some male Rustys are solid black, somewhat iridescent, and Brewer's-like. At other times of year (unless you're on their breeding grounds), all Rustys will show at least some brownish or rusty plumage; none should look all-back. Conversely, Brewer's (juveniles excepted) look pretty much the same all year: even in mid-winter, the male Brewer's I see in Texas still look uniformly black with some iridescence.

So, when confronted in spring migration with one of these males, consider the habitat: although there is overlap (with Rustys more often in Brewer's habitat than the reverse), Rustys tend to favor more wooded or brushy areas which are typically wet; Brewer's prefer pastures, upland fields, and other open and drier habitats. Listen for their songs: both end with a similar loud high-pitched note, with the Rusty preceding this with a soft jumble of notes, and the Brewer's starting only with a single, raspy "ksh" note. Look at the iridescence: even in good light a Rusty's sheen is subtle (or lacking) and a more uniform dull blue-green color, while the brighter shine on a Brewer's looks to me more two-toned with a purplish-blue head contrasting with bluish-green body. With direct comparison, you might detect the shorter, thicker bill of a Brewer's, or its slightly longer legs and tail (often accentuated by its grackle-like strutting gait), but I find these differences tough to judge.

Finally, as if the Rusty vs. Brewer's problem isn't hard enough, consider there are still other ID issues involving other species: see below for how a wintering grackle could be misidentified as a Brewer's, why a female Great-tailed Grackle might be mistaken for a Rusty Blackbird, and how Rustys could account for erroneous winter cowbird sightings.

Common Grackle. Once you've mastered the intricately subtle differences between crows and grackles (and I'm sure you managed this in less time than I did back in the '60s), there's not much to say about grackle ID. Perhaps the main thing to keep in mind is that females, juveniles (remember, they can have dark eyes), and winter males tend to show reduced head-body color contrast and iridescence, and perhaps their tails might look shorter. Accordingly, I suspect that grackles could actually be what some birders are seeing when Brewer's Blackbirds are reported here in winter.

Great-tailed Grackle. I was certainly puzzled a few springs ago down in Rock County when these otherwise obvious Great-tailed Grackles foraging in front of us clearly appeared to have dark eyes. Were we possibly seeing "impossible" Boat-tailed Grackles instead? (Unlike Great-taileds, Boat-taileds have never shown any tendency to stray inland very far from the coast.) The mystery was finally solved when I got around to reading Sibley. Just a few pages after puzzling over that strange juvenile Yellow-headed Blackbird picture, I read that juvenile Great-tailed Grackles can retain their dark iris color through their first year. I have to assume that's what we saw.

Juveniles aside, eye color remains a tricky field mark on big-tailed grackles, since Boat-tailed eyes can be either dark or light or in-between. But some of their calls are different, and there are average but subtle differences in their tail lengths and head shapes. Again, though, there's no reason in Minnesota not to call all of them Great-taileds. About the only potential for confusion would be among birders unfamiliar with the rusty-brown tones on female Great-tailed Grackles: I have seen these mistaken for Rusty Blackbirds more than once.


Brown-headed Cowbird. Along a similar vein, I wonder if birders unfamiliar with Rusty Blackbirds might focus in on the brown on their heads and mistake them for cowbirds? Maybe not, although I do know that streaked juvenile cowbirds have sometimes been mistaken for female Red-wingeds. I still recall and admit my confusion years ago when I took my first real look at a juvenile cowbird and hesitated to identify it with any confidence.

It's worth mentioning here the potential for other cowbird species to appear in Minnesota. Although the odds are slight for a Bronzed or Shiny cowbird to appear this far out of range, both species have turned up well north of their normal ranges (including a Shiny in Maine!). Given a decent look at a Bronzed, you would notice its red eyes (juveniles and females included), and its larger bill and overall size would be evident with direct comparison. A female or juvenile Shiny Cowbird would be a much tougher call this far out of range, but in Florida I found its longer, thinner bill to be its best mark, as long as direct comparison is available.    

(Oh, and let's not forget how easy it is to confuse Brown-headed Cowbird with McKay's Bunting! I still recall the partial albino cowbird that happened by us recently in Jackson County – somehow, both at rest and in flight, its overall plumage pretty well matched that of an adult male McKay's Bunting.)  

Orioles. When most Minnesota birders think of orioles, they naturally have Baltimores in mind. So, it's not surprising when I'm with birders who encounter that relatively unfamiliar female (or black-faced immature male) Orchard Oriole, a much smaller bird than a male Baltimore, and wonder what kind of warbler they're seeing. About the only other oriole here that gives birders pause would be one of those younger male Baltimores in spring that sometimes looks more dark yellow than orange, thus suggesting the possibility of a stray Scott's Oriole.  

Otherwise, orioles seldom present much of an ID challenge in Minnesota, although they can be a real problem elsewhere. Keep in mind, though, that Scott's (three state records) is not the only vagrant oriole which has turned up here. There's one documented Bullock's record, and I consider the second to be long overdue. But when one does eventually appear, let's hope it's not a female or immature, since orioles in such plumage are harder to distinguish than suggested in the field guides. And even if it is an adult male – sorry, but you then have to consider that Baltimore x Bullock's hybrids do occur.

But don't stop there after you've found that second-state-record Bullock's. Be aware that vagrant Hooded Orioles have occurred more than once not far from Minnesota: again, though, if it's a female/immature, you'll have your hands full separating it from an Orchard Oriole. There are even more remarkable vagrant possibilities as well, since in recent years (and I'm not kidding) a Streak-backed appeared in Wisconsin and an Audubon's showed up in Indiana! As far as I know, the documentations for these are entirely convincing – although I don't know if the dreaded issue of possible escapes has been addressed.

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Come on now, admit it: blackbirds are not as bad as you thought and were worth a second look. Besides, we didn't even have to talk about crows and starlings and other black birds – that is, unless you want to.But since you brought it up, did you know that crows are bigger than grackles? And don't even get me started on starlings....