Blackbirds and Grackles represent the most well known of the members of the Icterid family, also called New World Blackbirds.
They are an interesting group of birds that show more contrast in terms of physical and behavioral features than the average bird family. A quick scroll down the page, for example, shows birds with a multitude of feather colors, contrary to the name blackbird inferring black feathers. Some species are year round residents. Others are migratory.
Despite their outward differences, bone structure, especially the jaw bone, holds the blackbirds, grackles and others mentioned here in a coherent family.
The video shows a pair of Great-tailed Grackles, a recent migrant from Mexico that has expanded its range in much of Texas and the Southwest. Often if you see a pair, you can see literally hundreds. They are social nesters that readily adapt to most areas that fit their basic food and water needs.
Two birds, the Brewer’s Blackbird in the West, and the Rusty Blackbird in the East, represent the stereotypical concept of blackbird, and introduce the blackbirds and grackles sections.
They are medium sized, less than a foot in length. The black feathers of the male are complimented by yellow eyes. Females have brown feathers. The feathers of the Rusty Blackbird turn a bit rusty looking during the winter. Their population has declined over the past few decades.
Brewer’s Blackbirds are the more common of the two species. They live year round in the Pacific Northwest and during nonbreeding season their population migrates through most areas of the country, with the exception of New England, the Northeast and Upper Midwest.
Red-winged blackbirds hold the title of widest ranging blackbirds. Most wetland areas in the United States host them, often on a year round basis.
The red and yellow striped on the wings serve as the basic field identification clues.
Here’s a female with the typical brown and white patterned feathers.
Yellow-headed blackbirds, another bold and striking looking species, inhabit wetlands of the West and Midwest during the breeding season. With the exception of the Southwest, they migrate south to Mexico during the winter.
The common name Grackle is a holdover from a European habit of calling a few birds with dark plumage such as crows and starlings, grackles. Many people inquire if Grackles are related to crows. The short answer is no. They are related to blackbirds.
Grackle populations thrive due primarily to their less than picky diet. They eat almost anything. During the winter they tend to favor grains and the occasional fruit. As most backyard birders learn quickly, they often travel in large flocks and can monopolize the feeder.
The United States hosts two native species, with the Common Grackle a very common sight in most of the Eastern and Midwest. The picture highlights the blue sheen in the head feathers when the sun shines at a certain angle.
Along with the previously mentioned Great-tailed Grackles, Boat-tailed Grackles are more of a Florida specialty bird. However, there are populations along both the Southeast and Gulf Coast areas. It’s the same black color with an elongated tail.
More New Wolrd Blackbirds
It need be noted that the types of blackbirds extends beyond the blackbirds and grackles groups.
Cowbirds, for example, belong to the family. Originally considered farm birds because of their habitat preferences, their populations have increased and they now can be found in many open spaces, including local parks.
Best known as the birds that lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and have the host hatch and raise their young, their increased population raises concerns about the species whose nests they parasitize.
The two toned Brown-headed Cowbird is the most common across the United States and a year round resident in the southern half of the United States.
Bronzed Cowbirds move the conversation from most common to least common. They have recently been found in South Florida. The red eyes are the best clue.
Another species, the Shiny Cowbird has a presence in the Southwest.
Highly migratory, Bobolinks make the trip from southern South America to northern Northern American during the breeding season. It’s tough to miss the boldly marked black and white male.
Females and males out of breeding plumage have a more calm looking brown set of feathers.
Two Meadowlark species, conveniently named Eastern and Western, rank as the most popular of the Icterids, at least in terms of being designated as official state bird for six different states.
One listen to their song, along with their bright yellow color explains their popularity.
They are the stereotypical grassland bird, ground nesters valued for their melodic songs. Their diet consists of both insects and grains.
The popularity of the eight Oriole species that call the United States home during the breeding season, can not be overestimated. Birders remain eager to place citrus fruit in places around the yard with the hope of attracting these delightful songbirds to stop for a visit.
Baltimore Orioles are the primary Eastern Oriole species. In a sad irony, the data suggests that a changing climate means that Baltimore may not being suited for breeding in the city due to long term warming trends.
Orchard orioles match the eastern range of the Baltimore oriole. Feather color represents the best initial identification clues for the males. At the picture shows, the male Baltimore oriole has bright yellow feathers. Male Orchard orioles have chestnut feathers.
Bullock’s orioles and their bright yellow feathers range across the Western United States.
The remaining oriole species have more limited ranges. For example, Spot-breasted orioles are a South Florida specialty.
Altamira orioles and Audubon’s orioles are present in South Texas, although Audubon’s oriole populations have declined over the past few decades.
Scott’s orioles breed in the desert Southwest.
Birders traveling south during the migratory season often add to the icterid checklist by checking off at least one additional oriole species.