For the Birds: Blackbirds return — in force

Photo by Chris Bosak
A red-winged blackbird at Bashakill National Wildlife Refuge.

I heard them, that’s for sure. There was no missing the cacophony made by a large mixed flock of blackbirds.

Then the task became finding them. I figured I wouldn’t struggle too much at this chore as the trees are bare and I could tell from the sound of things there were a lot of them. It wasn’t as easy as I thought, but I did find them in fairly short order.

Yes, the trees were bare, but the sound was coming from a bit of a distance away and I was on terrain with many rolling hills. I crested the second hill and there they were in all their glory. The flock was mostly grackles, but a couple dozen red-winged blackbirds completed the flock.

All told there were about 80 birds. It was a sizable flock, but certainly not the biggest I have seen and most certainly not the biggest working its way into or through New England now.

Red-winged blackbirds are one of the earliest spring migrants to return. My story took place last week, in early March, which is actually a few weeks later than we usually start seeing them. In fact, Elena from Winchester had a few hardy red-winged blackbirds visit her feeders all throughout winter. The flock I saw the other day carried on for a while and then suddenly got quiet. I don’t know if the birds spotted a predator or if they were ready to settle in for the night as it was well into dusk.

I certainly could have missed something, especially considering the fading light, but I noted only grackles and red-winged blackbirds. These mixed flocks of blackbirds often have brown-headed cowbirds and starlings as well. If you’re lucky and take the time to scrutinize over the individual birds in the flock, you may find an unexpected visitor such as yellow-headed blackbird, boat-tailed grackle or rusty blackbird. It is believed that blackbirds winter and migrate in large flocks to offer better protection against predators and, perhaps, more effectively find food sources.

Yes, the spring migration is under way. It won’t be long now before the phoebes start showing up. To me, the return of “my” phoebes to the backyard signifies the real beginning of spring. Then, of course, birds of all shapes, colors and sizes will return to New England to either breed here or pass through on their way to northern breeding grounds.

It hasn’t been much of a winter, at least where I am in New England. That doesn’t mean winter is over, not by any means. I’ve been in New England long enough to know that we aren’t out of the woods until the third or even fourth week of April. Let’s hope it’s not another winter that stretches well into our spring. But that’s out of our control. If it is a long winter, we will deal with it. We always do.

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