Speaking of Nature: Blackbirds squaring off for food, real estate is a delight for bird watchers

  • A male red-winged blackbird is assaulted from all angles as other males try to gain access to some food. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

  • A male grackle lands on the railing raiser where several other blackbirds are already eating. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

For The Recorder
Sunday, March 19, 2017

Back in February, I gave a talk for the GCC Senior Symposium series that focused on birds and winter survival. To open my presentation, I noted that many bird species survive the winter by simply avoiding it. They abandon the northern breeding grounds for more pleasant winter quarters to the south, then return to take advantage of the massive quantities of real estate and food that are once again available in the spring and summer.

That’s a good strategy, but it does put the migrants in a bit of a pickle. All of that valuable real estate is ownerless until someone arrives to claim it. Thus, there is a clear motivation to arrive first and claim the most desirable tracts, but there is also the potential threat of death for arriving too soon. Owning the choicest territory is meaningless if you starve or freeze to death before you can use it.

The danger of this situation is played out year after year with what seems to be the arrival of certain birds at ridiculously early times. Just last week, I wrote a column on the earliest arrival of a killdeer that I have ever recorded for my yard. Last year, the winter of the great El Nino, this wouldn’t have been an issue, but consider what happened last week and you will see that nothing is ever certain in nature. Out of nowhere came a blizzard!

School was cancelled and I was eager to see what Tuesday morning looked like. At daybreak, the storm had just started, but I nonchalance that I had felt the preceding week was replaced with what might be described as a panic. All of the regulars were in attendance, but a horde of blackbirds that had arrived in February more than doubled the regular attendance. I noticed the first grackle of the year on Friday, Feb. 24, which was the second consecutive day of 70-degree weather. By Sunday, Feb. 26, that number had swollen to over 40 grackles in an even larger flock of mixed blackbirds. In the first weeks of March, their numbers diminished as the temperature fell. But when the snow started to fall, they appeared once again.

The interesting thing about this situation was the fact that the blackbirds were almost exclusively male. Having arrived early to compete for territories, they were all pumped up with hormones and itching for a fight. Add in the pressure of a huge snowstorm and a limited supply of food and it was like touching a flame to fireworks. What a magnificent explosion it was!

I took over a thousand photos during the storm and it was difficult to select just two or three that captured the mood. Some beautiful pictures were set aside in favor of others that showed the pandemonium that I witnessed. One photo shows a male grackle arriving at the railing raiser where brown-headed cowbirds, a red-winged blackbird and two other grackles are already feeding. This bird was a tough guy and in fairly short order he had cleared out most of the competition, but one of the other grackles wasn’t impressed. The two faced off in the classic “heads up” threat display that grackles use and moment later the bird in the foreground jumped into the air and kicked the interloper in the face. The interloper shrugged it off and assumed temporary ownership of the food.

Not to be outdone, the red-winged blackbirds were in constant battle as well. One photo in particular captured the energy that continued the following day. Males arriving from all angles upset another that had been eating peacefully for all of ten seconds. The biting, kicking and flapping was nonstop as each bird tried to get something to eat. It was mayhem of the most marvelous sort.

It’s hard to believe that tree swallows and phoebes may arrive in just two weeks, but things change quickly at this time of year. Before long I’ll be hunting for wildflowers and getting ready for the explosion of green that we are all so eagerly waiting for. Stay tuned!

Bill Danielson has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Massachusetts State Parks. He has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 19 years and he also teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.