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Birds of a Feather

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Published on: Oct. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

Red-Winged Blackbird (Male)

an elderly woman told me.

Thinning vegetation where the birds roost is one nonlethal way of controlling them in urban and suburban areas. That, along with scare tactics, are the most common ways to deal with them, said Dan Pekarek, City of Joplin Community Health Director. Health officials like Pekarek get involved because of the potential hazard posed by histoplasmosis, a disease caused by a fungus that thrives in bird droppings. Humans can develop the disease from inhaling the fungal spores.

When blackbirds and starlings roosted in pine trees on the Sikeston Country Club Golf Course, course superintendent Jon Etter said that in some places the manure "was an inch thick, even after the rains."

It stank, too. That doesn't contribute to a nice day on the links.

"We got pyrotechnics and propane tanks and went out for five nights for a week and stuck to it and they moved on," Etter said. Even when the birds have been scared away, if the soil tests positive for the fungus, it must be decontaminated before it's safe.

Red-winged blackbirds, which dominate some roosts, are probably the most abundant species in North America. You'll see them in marshes, wetlands and roadside ditches. Their legs are adapted to do "splits" like a gymnast as they cling to two separate cattails or reeds.

The population was estimated at about 190 million in 1984, but their numbers are declining, said Brad Jacobs, a wildlife ecologist and ornithologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. Jacobs is the author of Birds in Missouri.

"Red-wings have been declining at about 2.1 percent a year for the last twenty years in Missouri--nationwide at about 0.8 percent," Jacobs said, "but they're so super abundant, no one notices."

Another problem bird is the European starling, which is particularly abundant in huge urban roosts.

Often in a blackbird flock you'll see grackles, most commonly common grackles. In the Osage Plains area or the western border of the state, you might spot great-tailed grackles, first seen in Missouri in 1976. Recent sightings suggest they are expanding eastward.

Cowbirds join the huge flocks, too. This species could probably be crowned Most Unpopular Bird because it's a sponger, or more technically, a brood parasite. A cowbird doesn't build its own nest. Instead it lays it eggs in the nests of other species. The unsuspecting nest builder then becomes a foster parent. Young cowbirds are big and aggressive and likely to get most of the food,

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