Birds of a Feather

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Published on: Oct. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

Red-Winged Blackbird (Male)

A lone red-winged blackbird sings from the top branch of a bald cypress tree standing sentinel over my pond. He proclaims his territory with a proud trill that signals he is the top bird around these parts. His mate, looking like an overgrown sparrow, is harder to spot.

He is a welcome resident of springtime when he is being territorial, but when nesting season is over, he, his mate and their offspring will join other birds to roost. There is safety in numbers. It's harder for a hawk to pick off a single bird when it's surrounded by thousands to hundreds of thousands of its kin.

Flocks are composed primarily of "birds of a feather," that is, birds from the family Icteridae, especially blackbirds, grackles, and cowbirds. Bobolinks, meadowlarks and orioles are also in this family, but they don't associate with the others. European starlings often join the flock. These are from the family Sturnidae.

The sheer numbers in the flock will make them less than welcome wherever they go. These summer and autumn roosts are primarily in deciduous trees, and when the leaves fall, many of the birds will fly south. Many others remain in Missouri, and others pour in from the north to form huge winter roosts in conifers and buildings. During the day they may fly as far as 20 miles to feed.

From a distance, a flock of blackbirds and starlings leaving or returning to their roost resembles a river of smoke as it undulates with unseen currents. On and on it comes, mile after mile. It's the closest I'll ever come to experiencing the great passenger pigeon flocks that once darkened the skies. The sight is awesome, but it's troublesome, too, especially to the people whose property harbors or abuts a roost. The biggest critics of blackbirds are often farmers.

Larry Riley farms rice, corn and other crops in southeastern Missouri and is also chairman of the Missouri Rice Research and Merchandising Council.

"A dozen birds aren't bad," Riley said, "but when you get 20,000 or more to a field, they can thin a stand of rice to the point you don't have a field of rice. They get in the corn, too. When that little spike comes through the ground, they pull it up and eat the kernel."

They attack mature corn as well, tearing open the husks and feeding on the kernels.

Depredation of crops is not the only hazard farmers face

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