Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Blackbirds: Pastry Surprise or Avian Pirates?

"Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie" is one of the more memorable lines in nursery rhymes passed on from eighteenth century England. There are many interpretations of this verse, but the two most cited are that there were actually recipes for live birds to serve as surprises at royal banquets; or that the entire poem is a secret code advertising for crewmen to contract with Blackbeard's ship.

In Europe, where this poem originated, one of the most common "blackbirds" is the starling, which was imported to North America in the 1890's as one of the menagerie of over sixty bird species mentioned in Shakespeare's writings. (The bard's play, Twelfth Night, is the oldest known source for the line "Sing a song o' six pence.") On many spring mornings, you might see starlings grazing local lawns and parks along with flocks of several types of North American blackbirds, which include cowbirds, grackles, Brewer's blackbirds, as well as the more colorful yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds. This is especially true in winter months, when many birds congregate in mixed flocks while feeding.
Female grackles                                                        photo by Rick Halliburton
In the official blackbird family, Icteridae, males and females are often mistaken for completely different species because they look so different. Females' feathers are designed for camouflage, dressed in drab brown rather than black. Showy males are up to 60% larger than females and wear sleek black feathers with sheens of blue, green and purple. Blackbirds tend to thrive in the company of humans in both agricultural and urban settings, often in noisy flocks of hundreds, thousands or even millions. Because of this, they are often considered to be "pests," but there is also much to appreciate about blackbirds.
Male grackles in courtship displays                      photo by Rick Halliburton
The most elegant of this group are the male Great-tailed Grackles, with long fan-shaped tails, iridescent feathers and bright gold eyes. During their breeding season, the males perform ardent courtship displays featuring neck stretching, wing vibrations and tail fanning, accompanied by loud screeching and cackling. Some of this is competitive, so you'll sometimes see several males displaying at once as they vie for their rank in the local mating hierarchy. Both males and females are promiscuous, meaning that they all have multiple partners, although there tends to be more available females than males in most colonies. In this species, the ladies take care of nest-building and chick-rearing on their own. Thus, in some Hispanic cultures, a lazy husband who doesn't work is called a Zanate, one common name for a male grackle.

However, it is not completely derogatory to be called a Zanate, for they are also known as great vocalists. According to a Mexican legend, the grackle's diverse repertoire of whistles, chattering and squawks is said to represent songs expressing the Seven Passions of Life: love, hate, fear, courage, joy, sadness and anger.

Although the meaning of the nursery rhyme is ambiguous, one thing is for sure: if you take the time to watch a flock of blackbirds in their amazing synchronized flights, listen to their songs, or watch their elaborate courtship displays, you are sure to feel one of life's passions: joy!

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