From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Flocks of Black Birds (Blackbirds, etc.)

Life in Christian County, Kentucky... Life in The Upper South...
More About Birds and Animals...



Flock of blackbirdsBlackbirds seeking fallen grain


This part of Kentucky (and much of the greater Ohio/Mississippi Valley), is an overwintering area for blackbirds, or more correctly, black birds. Red-winged blackbirds, starlings, grackles, cowbirds, and others roost together in forested areas at night and fly in huge flocks during the day, looking for food in the fields.

I noticed earlier this winter that we didn't seem to have as many flocks of black birds this year, but this morning when I took Isaac to school, I saw big flocks of thousands and thousands of birds in the air, on the fields, and in the trees. I think the recent cold temperatures have finally brought them into our area. It was a frosty +10° here last night, and much colder than that farther north.

Many people don't like these big flocks. They eat grain that's waiting for harvest during the fall and drop manure over what they don't eat. When they roost too much in any one area, their manure builds up and histoplasmosis, a respiratory disease that humans can contract, can be a problem. They endanger airplanes when they roost near airports and they make suburban forests miserable for the human residents. And the complaints go on and on.

Flocks of blackbirdsFinding food along the road
The birds don't bother me much since I don't have any crops, don't fly much, and don't spend much time in their roosting areas.

Occasionally, a flock will drop out of the sky and land in our trees for a few minutes. Casper, our kitten, is really freaked out by the loud noise of their wings, the cacophony of their chirps and cackles, and the sudden sight of them swooping in to the treetops or rising into flight as a flock.

I enjoy seeing the huge flocks because they help me imagine how a flock of passenger pigeons might have looked. Two hundred years ago, passenger pigeons flew the skies of Kentucky in even greater number than the blackbirds. Here is John James Audubon's famous description of the passenger pigeon numbers in Kentucky:

"The multitudes of Wild Pigeons in our woods are astonishing. Indeed, after having viewed them so often, and under so many circumstances, I even now feel inclined to pause, and assure myself that what I am going to relate is fact. Yet I have seen it all, and that too in the company of persons who, like myself, were struck with amazement.

"In the autumn of 1813, I left my house at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio, on my way to Louisville. In passing over the Barrens a few miles beyond Hardensburgh, I observed the Pigeons flying from north-east to south-west, in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before, and feeling an inclination to count the flocks that might pass within the reach of my eye in one hour, I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I travelled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose."

John James Audubon, in Birds of America.
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2 comments:

Mark said...

A small flock of some sort of black bird roosts in a group of large hollies near where I walk sometimes after work. It's in a large office park, with well lit streets. It's night and they are just settling down usually when I pass this group of hollies, but I disturb them. They boil out of the hollies, fly about three feet and then dive back in. it's really quite an odd sight.

Genevieve said...

Hi, Mark. I hope all's going well with you this week. It is amazing how a flock of birds all moves at one time. I guess they are ultra-sensitive to the movements of each other, but how do they know if one of them is just moving to another branch or is taking off in panic?!

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