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Seeing lots of blackbirds? Here's why

IMG_0707 (1)I saw a bunch of small blackbirds today in Allendale, and just got a text regarding a similar occurrence. In my case, it was starlings that appeared t be going after grass seed.

Here's what I wrote about this last year -- with a photo by Heidi Gross.


By Jim Wright

Special to The Record

     The dispatch arrived via Facebook late last month: Local resident Heidi Gross reported seeing hundreds of blackbirds flying down her street and alighting on lawns. 

    The scene was right out of the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock classic, “The Birds,” except no schoolchildren were menaced on their way home.   Similar reports soon arrived from Oakland, Elmwood Park, Ridgewood and elsewhere: huge flocks of blackbirds. 

   What the heck was happening? A murmuration of starlings? A murder of crows?

   My best guess: a cackle of grackles.*

   Fortunately, Heidi took a terrific photo of her feathered conclave, and that made the identification easier.  The robin-size birds had glossy blue-black feathers and black bills, which indicated grackles. 

    In case you’re wondering, starlings are smaller. They have yellow bills and tan speckles on their chest feathers. Fish crows and American crows are much bigger, and they tend to gather in large numbers mostly toward evening when hundreds or might roost together in the winter months.

     After Heidi posted her blackbird bonanza, Facebook was abuzz with a raft of replies, including people wondering what the birds were up to and where they were going. Migrating, perhaps?

   The answer: The grackles were most likely flocking together in search of food in the colder months. (By the way, common grackles don’t migrate; they tend to hang around all year long.)

    A few days after the grackle report, I saw a mixed flock of a hundred robins, grackles and starlings going after ripe berries on a tree in a nearby office park. News of free meals travels fast.

    Grackle flocks have numbered into the thousands around here some years, and flocks approaching a million birds -- with another species or two tossed in-- have been reported in Maryland and Virginia. Crow roosts, on the other hand, have numbered as high as 2 million in Oklahoma.

     Although grackles can be aggressive around other birds at feeders, humans have nothing to fear -- especially if they keep their car’s windshield-washer fluids filled.

       * It turns out that there are collective nouns to describe groups of birds, from a flock of gulls to a trembling of finches, but there's some debate over an official collective noun for grackles. Several online sources include none for the medium-size blackbird, so last year a writer for the Houston Chronicle asked readers what noun they prefer to describe grackles. Their answers included a ruckus, an omen, a hassle, a squawk, a grifting, an annoyance and -- my favorites -- a Hitchcock or a (Tippi) Hedren of grackles.