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 from the birds. The quantity of manure produced by thousands of birds is significant.

"The droppings go through the combine, through the grain bins and to the mill," Riley said. "The mill turns down your crop. One farmer had 30,000 bushels turned down."

A contaminated crop can be run through a seed cleaner, but that eats into already slim profits.

Riley said farmers try everything to startle the birds and move them out of the area, from using propane cannons to driving around the field shooting bottle rockets or shotguns. He recognizes that scaring the birds away isn't a solution because it just moves the problem to the neighbor's place, but "that's all you can do," he said.

Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Wildlife Services is the government agency charged with resolving bird issues.

"When we are called with bird problems, we talk to the individual to find out exactly what the problem is and what species is causing the problem," said Ed Hartin, Missouri State Director for APHIS. "We then give recommendations on how they can legally respond to the conflict they are facing. We let them know all of the options, starting with nonlethal all the way up to lethal removal."

Controls include frightening devices, altering habitat, cultural controls (for example, planting corn with tight husks), trapping, seed treatment repellents, and poisoning. APHIS continually searches for more effective control methods.

Most damage control done by APHIS is non-lethal, according to an article by Ted Williams, in the November 2001 issue of Audubon. An APHIS plan in the Dakotas to poison millions of red-winged blackbirds that were feasting on the sunflower crop drew pressure because of the danger to non-target birds. Also because they migrate, the birds poisoned would probably not be the same birds that would damage the crops later in the season.

Hartin said that blackbirds hit Missouri rice farmers hardest. In 1999, our farmers lost an estimated $4.8 million out of a total yield of about $55.69 million to blackbird depredation. Corn farmers lost $1.5 million out of $482.3 million. Wheat and milo crops also sustain losses each year, as do livestock and poultry operations in lost feed.

Farmers aren't the only ones troubled by blackbird and starling flocks. City and suburban dwellers find them a nuisance and attack the problem in a variety of ways.

"My first memory is a bunch of the neighbors going out with pan lids and banging them together," 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, causing the other babies to starve or get pushed out of the nest.

Jeff Cantrell, a conservation education consultant with MDC and a birder, observed that cowbirds are causing a serious population decline in some of the warblers, vireos, and indigo buntings in the fragmented forest regions of Missouri.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 seems to protect all of these problem birds, except starlings (which aren't natives), unless a person has a valid permit to destroy them. Marlys Bulander, the Region 3 permit administrator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says a federal regulation specifically says a permit is not needed to control blackbirds, grackles, crows and magpies "when found committing depredation or about to commit depredations, or when concentrated in such numbers and manner as to constitute a health hazard or other nuisance" (50 CFR 21.43). The federal regulation, however, is subordinate to state regulations.

Problem birds?

If you have a problem with blackbirds and starlings, call your local health department or your area Missouri Department of Conservation office.The Conservation Department has several articles about blackbirds and blackbird control on its Web site at www.mdc.mo.gov. Search word: blackbirds. University of Missouri County Extension offices have information both online or by mail.

Missouri's Wildlife Code says that no bird may be killed, except as specifically permitted elsewhere in the rules (3 CSR 10-4.110). Elsewhere, the Wildlife Code allows a landowner, or his or her agent, to deal with nuisance birds (3 CSR 10-4.130) when they are, beyond a reasonable doubt, damaging his or her property. In that event, you must notify an agent of the Conservation Department within 24 hours of taking action.

Starlings are not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act or Missouri's Wildlife Code because they are not native birds. According to Birds in Missouri, European starlings were brought to America by the American Acclimatization Society in 1890. Its mission was to have all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's works introduced to North America, and a starling is mentioned in Henry IV.

Despite rules that appear to favor landowners, farmers like Larry Riley must be wary of killing any of these birds because of the danger of inadvertently killing protected species. The Fish and Wildlife Service once documented 68 species of birds found near North and South Dakota sunflower fields in the spring. Rice fields, corn fields, feedlots are probably similar. It would be difficult to avoid killing untargeted species.

Joplin's Dan Pekarek told how blackbirds and starlings used to roost in an area on the south edge of Joplin. "Now there are houses there," he said, "and there's a conflict between the birds and the residents."

People are frustrated by bird problems, but they are bound to increase as more woodland is cleared and cultivated and rural areas continue to be urbanized. Simply put, there are more of us to be bothered every year, and fewer places for the birds to roost without causing problems.

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