Posted by: atowhee | November 15, 2011

BLACK ON GRAY

Overcast and gray skies, tiny mist droplets in the air, Brewer’s Blackbirds in the bare limbs of winter.

The Brewer’s Blackbird is the common parking lot bird across much of the Pacific states.  It is an Icterid family member found across the western 3/4 of North America.  Its near cousin is the more northerly Rusty Blackbird that winters east of the Rockies.

The Icterid family of orioles, blackbirds, grackles, meadowlarks and cowbirds are adaptable and at home in open lands and man-made habitat.  We humans have turned much of the Pacific Slope into blackbird heaven.  Along with Robins, Starlings (introduced), House Finch, Mockingbird and American Crows, the Brewer’s Blackbird have thrived in our altered habitats.

They are so at home around humans that blackbirds frequently pick a street tree as a nest site, then proceed to drive off every dog or human pedestrian that approaches.  In nesting season the blackbird can frequently be seen dive-bombing a passing raptor or crow.

Although this bird had been given a scientific description already, it was Audubon who gave this species its common name.  His expedition up the Missouri River in 1844 collected specimens of this bird. Adubon describes it from the Fort Union area of Montana.  Writing in the 1840s he says, “They do not evince the pertness so usually accompanying other birds of this family, but look all the while as if unsatisfied with their present abode… On the ground their gait is easy and brisk, and I never heard them sing, but simply omit a cluck not unlike that of the common Red-winged Starling [blackbird]…the metallic resplendence is uniformly more brilliant, purple and blue… I think it is almost superfluous to add that I have named this species after my friend Thomas M. Brewer, Esq….”

Trained as a medical doctor at Harvard, Thomas Brewer (1814-1880) turned to writing, politics, publishing and natural history.  He shared many of his early observations with Audubon for his Bird Biographies.  During Brewer’s long life he published many papers on birds and eggs of eastern American species.  He became part of the quartet of birdmen who dominated the field in the mid-1800s: Spencer Baird, John Cassin, George Lawrence.  Along with Baird and Ridgway he co-authored the magisterial History of North American Birds, published in the 1870-80s.  Brewer was working on text for volume on waterbirds when he died.  It was John Cassin who named a western sparrow species after Brewer.  The Brewer’s Sparrow is common in places like Malheur NWR in eastern Oregon.

Sadly the adaptable Brewer’s Blackbird population appears to be on decline. Its urban and suburban lifestyle and an  omnivorous diet put the species in danger from any number of chemicals human has loosed upon the environment.


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