Posted by: atowhee | September 30, 2019


brb flok (2)Nature has many practitioners of gathering.  Our own species can conglomerate into colonies of millions in what we call cities or conurbations. The buzzing of insect swarms is familiar in many parts of the world.  Ants, termites and other catacomb builders can form multitudinous societies that dominate a small part of the earth therearound. Plants from dandelions and fescue to redwoods seem to prefer the company of their own kind.  Habitats with a wide variety of plants often feel as if there were a truce, not what any single species would have willed could it do so.

In the animal world I have seen gatherings of many kinds.  Almost daily the score of Bushtits hit my garden feeders several times, then buzz off.  In fall there are flocks of migrating swallows, geese, kettles of Turkey Vultures, swirls of swifts.  In Uganda nesting weavers would dominate a huge tree, nests hanging on every available branch.  On the New Zealand coast a colony of nesting gannets jammed together, an intentional tenement. In Spain you can find a Lesser Kestrel flock hunting above the town like swallows. Many finch species from siskin up to Evening Grosbeaks are notorious for roaming in greedy hordes, so are waxwings. Waxwings fly in such tight formation often that I use that aerial formation as an easy field mark. March hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes nightly roost along the shallow Platte River.  Along the Pacific Coast nesting colonies of murre, puffins, cormorants, gulls, auklets populate offshore islands, daytime flights make any airport look peaceful.  Cliff Swallows in America, House Martins in Europe, can turn a bridge or roof overhang into a busy condo complex.  Many different corvids have their own forms of gathering: young ravens form play groups in the wind; Jackdaws go nest and roost the cracks in old cathedrals or at Stonehenge; Rooks prefer riparian forests for their gatherings; Pinyon Jays have their own arboreal preferences in the arid U.S. West; Canada Jay gangs move about dense conifer forests assuming camp sites and picnic tables are their own property; Yellow-billed Magpies could tell you every outdoor feeding location for cats and dogs in their territory if you could but listen; Steller’s Jays will sound the call if you begin tossing out peanuts within their sight, and then the clan will gather. Starlings are famous for their murmurations.  So it is not unusual that our American blackbirds and their kin congregate.  They have no relations in the Eastern Hemisphere so their movements and behavior are a New World phenomenon and I consider myself fortunate to get to watch them so often. In Latin America their colorful oropendola cousins build hanging nests by the dozens in a chosen tree.  Icterids seem very tolerant of various species in their family, even tolerating starlings when they decide to join the club.  We have all seen western blackbirds or grackles back east—in parking lots, on overhead wires, in marshes, in fields (farm or soccer), in flight, homing into roost trees at night.

So it was familiar but still exciting to see tens of thousands of blackbirds flocked in the fields at Princeton in the Malheur Basin earlier this month.  We failed to find our first cowbird but what we did see was a mix of Brewer’s, Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbirds.  Living in the U.S. we found ourselves asking “Who’s in charge of the flock?  Who leads?”  Perhaps unpoisoned by the political ideas that cripple our kind, the blackbirds do what’s best for one and all.

The bold white wing patch shows only on the male Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  For larger view, just click on the image.


  1. Reblogged this on Wolf's Birding and Bonsai Blog.

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