Back to Nature (Published on - Dec. 28, 2006)
Exploring the world of blackbirds
Illustration by Karen Mitchell Tremmel
What many people don’t realize is that there are many varieties of black feathered birds. They are listed within two basic categories in North America: blackbirds and orioles and raven’s and crows. Blackbirds and orioles include: Yellow-headed Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Tricolored Blackbird, Rusty Blackbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Bronzed Cowbird, Common Grackle, Boat-tailed Grackle and the Great-tailed Grackle.

Among ravens and crows, we find the Eurasian Jackdaw, Mexican Crow, American Crow, Northwestern Crow, Fish Crow, Chihuahuan Raven and the Common Raven.

Many of the questions that are e-mailed to me are concerning blackbirds, so I thought over the next couple of weeks, it might be informative and fun to take a closer look at blackbirds. We will concentrate on individual identifying markings and each species’ habitat. If you’ve been watching your feeders this winter, you may have noticed gatherings of blackbirds with whitish-yellow eyes. By this identification you know it is a Rusty Blackbird, Brewer’s Blackbird or the Common Grackle. Next examine color.

The Rusty Blackbird (9-inch) male is black with a greenish gloss. The female is brown and also has the yellow eye. The Rusty Blackbird is rare to occasional in our area in the fall and winter.

The Brewer’s Blackbird (9-inch) male also has a greenish gloss over the wings and back, but you will know immediately that it is a Brewer’s Blackbird by the purple gloss on his head. The female is also drab brown but her eye is not yellow. The Brewer’s Blackbird’s bill is thicker and shorter than the Rusty Blackbird’s.

The other bird that these two may be confused with is the Common Grackle that also has a yellow eye. The big difference here is size. The Common Grackle is quite a bit larger, 12 inches in length. The purple sheen is overall. Compared to the Brewer’s Blackbird, the Common Grackle also has a longer tail and larger bill. Common Grackles are very abundant in Florida. They can be seen in our parks, backyards or near most any fast-food establishment’s garbage bin.

The European Starling (8.5 inches) also is confused with many blackbirds and is sometimes seen in mixed flocks with other blackbirds and grackles. Starlings have black eyes. Both sexes are iridescent black. Fall plumage has white and buff tips on the feathers causing the plumage to appear speckled. This non-native bird was introduced to North America around the 1920s, and now its numbers have grown into the 200-million range.

Starlings are bold, aggressive and highly social birds. Starlings gather in large flocks, eating in the same areas each day and roosting in the same areas at night. Starlings do not care for cold weather. Starling species from the northern parts of North America flock together and migrate south in the fall and early winter. Unfortunately starlings aggressively compete with native North American species such as Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows for hole-nesting sites.

These three bird guide books will be of assistance: the “National Geographic Society Field Guide to the Birds of North America,” “Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds” and a handy little book with a waterproof cover, great for beginners, the “American Bird Conservancy’s Field Guide–All the Birds of North America.” This latter book groups birds for easier identification.

Season’s Greetings from Back to Nature and a Happy New Year.

Karen can be reached at

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