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Thanksgiving Bird

Ah! Thanksgiving. It’s usually one of my favorite holidays. I had baked the pies and cooked the cranberries the day before and, despite a crashing headache and nausea, had made the bulgur stuffing right after breakfast before crawling back into bed.

A few minutes later our son Steve called to say that he and his wife Karylee had been up all night with a stomach virus and wouldn’t be coming for dinner. For the first time in our 43 years of marriage, Bruce and I wouldn’t be celebrating Thanksgiving. Sadly I put the stuffing back into the refrigerator for another day.

I felt badly enough that I was almost relieved. The wind howled and blew blinding snow outside. Already two inches had fallen. Once during the morning the sun shone briefly, lighting up my world, and I bitterly regretted not being able to go out and enjoy the first snow of the season.

Instead, I listened to Thanksgiving music and musings on the radio as I rested in bed. By lunchtime I was able to eat a little broth and an apple and drink a cup of tea–not, of course, my intended Thanksgiving fare. I confess to feeling a little sorry for myself until Bruce, who was standing at the kitchen window looking out at our bird feeding area, suddenly asked, “What’s that blackbird? It’s too small for a grackle or crow and it doesn’t look like a starling.”

I eased myself over to the window and saw a coal blackbird with what appeared to be staring yellow eyes.

“It’s either a rusty or a Brewer’s blackbird,” I said excitedly and checked my four bird guides to be sure. By November male rusty blackbirds would have lost their overall black plumage and taken on the rusty overtones that give them their common name, my guides informed me. But male Brewer’s blackbirds remain black year-round. Because the light was bad that snowy day, I couldn’t see the purplish overtones on the Brewer’s blackbird’s head or greenish ones on his body that the books described.

Instead of a Thanksgiving turkey, our Thanksgiving bird was a Brewer’s blackbird and incidentally, bird species number 168 for our property. So even though we could not have our traditional Thanksgiving meal, I was thankful to have received an unexpected gift from nature–a bird of the Midwest and western North America that is seen only irregularly in Pennsylvania during migration.

He flew off but returned several minutes later, and again I studied him in my binoculars. Also known as “Satin Bird” or “Glossy Blackbird,” even on a dull day he was a handsome sight.

He disappeared shortly after lunch and was replaced by what the books call a “fall variant” of the male Brewer’s blackbird. This one had brown mixed with black on his head and shoulders and was a bit bolder than the first male. He landed on the ground, scattering the white-throated sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, and mourning doves, and gobbled up the cracked corn. Because Brewer’s blackbirds are gleaners of waste grain as well as weed and grass seed during the winter, he preferentially picked the cracked corn from the mixed seed on the ground.

By then I was sitting next to our bow window, sipping herb tea a friend had given me, and watching the feeder birds, particularly the stranger at the feeder. And stranger he, or his look-alike, remained for quite awhile. After that one bold foray, he flew off. But later he returned to an ash tree near the feeders and ate snow off the branches. Still later I spotted him at the edge of a flat area in front of the woods. From there he flew into a ditch and I lost sight of him.

Then, once again a “fall variant” Brewer’s blackbird flew into the ash tree, facing into the fierce wind. This bird was more hesitant to approach the feeding area and flew from ash tree to black walnut tree to slippery elm tree to a black walnut sapling and then to a large burdock in front of the feeding area before finally landing on the back step, snatching a seed, and flying off when the other feeder birds flushed. He alighted on the smaller, closer black walnut sapling but retreated to the ash tree, and again repeated his odyssey from tree to tree to tree to sapling to burdock before landing on the back step and eating several seeds. Altogether, he had spent half an hour in his hesitant approaches, all the while twitching his tail in seemingly nervous apprehension.

As the afternoon wore on, though, each time he fled to the safety of the big ash tree, he returned to the back step quicker and ate longer, constantly checking for predators and warily watching the other birds. At last he waddled over to join the mourning doves, and every time the juncos and white-throats took off, he also flew. Since Brewer’s blackbirds usually forage in large flocks of other Brewer’s blackbirds or in mixed blackbird flocks, he probably felt safer when surrounded by the other birds.

At 4:14 more violent gusts of wind flung clots of snow against the bow window and sent the Brewer’s blackbird and mourning doves off for the last time. Those Brewer’s blackbirds had given me an unforgettable Thanksgiving, and I continued to puzzle over their unexpected appearance. Two or possibly three male Brewer’s blackbirds had probably been blown off-course by the storm and been separated from a larger flock.

Brewer’s blackbirds were first popularly named for Thomas Mayo Brewer, a Boston publisher, editor and oologist, who was a friend of ornithologist/artist John James Audubon. Audubon had collected several Brewer’s blackbirds in 1843 during a trip along the upper Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. Thinking it was a new species, he bestowed the scientific name–Quiscalus breweri–on the bird. That name was not accepted because the Brewer’s blackbird had been previously described in 1829 by Johannes Wagler, a researcher connected with the Zoological Museum in Munich, Germany. Today its scientific name–Euphagus cyanocephalus–means a good-to-eat blue-head even though those “four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie” were not Brewer’s blackbirds.

Before 1914, Brewer’s blackbirds were common birds that lived and bred in open habitats of western North American. But then, using railroad and powerline right-of-ways and highways, some of them began moving eastward at the rate of 11 miles a year. In 40 years they had extended their breeding range 720 miles. They also expanded 180 miles northward in Canada.

At the same time they enlarged their winter range in the southeastern United States, crossing the Mississippi River into Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana. In fact, our son Mark, who lives and works in the heavily-farmed Delta area of Mississippi, was distinctly unimpressed when I told him about our Brewer’s blackbirds. Even in his town of Cleveland, he found it impossible to count all the Brewer’s blackbirds in the huge, mixed flocks that descended on his neighborhood during the midwinter Great Backyard Bird Count.

No doubt all these extensions of both breeding and wintering areas are due to the clearing of forests and the converting of that land into farms and other open habitats, which provide ample food and nesting areas for these adaptable birds. They preferentially choose human-modified landscapes such as lawns, golf courses, cemeteries, urban parks, and vacant lots that contain nearby trees and brushy tangles for their nests. But other open land–clearcuts, bogs, swampy meadows, grassy pastures and plowed fields–also provide prime nesting and foraging areas for them.

Although they eat waste grain and weed seeds during the winter, they quickly switch to mostly insects in spring and summer, especially if there is a local outbreak of an insect such as forest tent caterpillars or insects harmful to farm crops. For this reason, they are considered beneficial birds by researchers, but because the eastern population of Brewer’s blackbirds frequently associates with the perceived “bad guys” of the blackbird world, i.e. common grackles, brown-headed cowbirds, and European starlings, they are often victims of blackbird pest control.

They nest in colonies of anywhere from four to 100 pairs, and the female defends a small territory around her nest. Her mate establishes a guard perch where he watches out for predators and for other males that might be interested in his mate.

Both sexes sing, but the male sings throughout the year especially during courtship and mate-guarding. They form a pair bond during late winter or early spring while still part of a flock, and after courtship, she picks the nest site on the ground, in a shrub, or in vegetation over water, often changing her nest type location from year to year, although those Brewer’s blackbirds that have moved east usually are ground nesters and those in the west construct nests above ground.

She builds the bulky nest and lays four to six eggs as the male continues to guard and sometimes feed her while she incubates the eggs for 12 to 13 days.

Both parents feed their single brood during the 13-day nestling period and their following three to four weeks as fledglings. But often not all of those fledglings are Brewer’s blackbirds. In the state of Washington, for instance, researcher R.K. Furrer, back in 1974, found that one third of all cowbird eggs laid in 267 Brewer’s blackbirds’ nests resulted in fledged brown-headed cowbirds. However, statistically such nest parasitism doesn’t affect the breeding success of the Brewer’s blackbirds, which evolved in the same open habitat as the cowbirds and therefore can sustain such interlopers, unlike some of our woodland songbirds such as wood thrushes that are negatively affected by brown-headed cowbird parasitism.

Brewer’s blackbird fledglings join their parents in family groups that meld into a flock of adults and young from several nests in the colony within a week or two. The flock usually forages in the nesting area, but some move quickly away, probably because of the food supply.

Not all Brewer’s blackbirds migrate, but those that do are on the move by middle to late September or early October. Their movements depend on the weather and where the best food supplies are, which changes their migratory patterns from year to year. Mild years find them farther north as late as early November. But usually they begin arriving in their major wintering grounds, including Mexico, from the middle of October through mid-November. One study even indicates that females are more strongly migratory than males.

Which brings me back to my Thanksgiving birds. What were three male Brewer’s blackbirds doing in central Pennsylvania on a cold, snowy day in late November? Remembering our son Mark’s reaction to the hordes of wintering Brewer’s blackbirds in Mississippi, I am reminded that one birder’s “trash bird” is another birder’s treasure. It all depends on where you live.

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