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Brewer's Blackbird

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Brewer's Blackbird

Spring arrives on the wings of returning birds

The return of the migratory birds to our region is my favorite harbinger of spring. These birds are better at announcing the arrival of spring than the calendar or the weatherman. It doesn’t matter the equinox and what is technically spring, nor what it looks like outside—snow flurries, gray skies, cold weather—these birds know. Spring arrives on the wings of the returning birds. 

What a delight it is then to hear that first t-zherr song (thank you, David Allen Sibley) in my backyard. Brewer’s Blackbirds don’t perch at my bird feeder; instead, they prefer to pick from the grass the seeds and whatnot scattered to the ground by the thriftless House Sparrows. First there is a single pair in my yard, then a couple more, and soon there are more than my three-year-old granddaughter can count. My backyard gets filled with their distinctive. metallic-sounding calls. 

The Brewer’s Blackbird was named by John Audubon for his friend, the famous American ornithologist Thomas Mayo Brewer. Audubon first encountered this bird in his travels over the northern Great Plains. Originally, this bird only ranged over the western region of modern-day Minnesota, but it followed the expansion of agriculture both westward to the Pacific coast, and then later northeastward into Wisconsin and then up into Ontario. Today, this bird spends its summers up through central Canada and from the American Midwest to the Pacific coast. Migrants will spend their winters across the continent from the American South to California, though many are year-round residents in much of the American West. 

This is a beautiful bird, especially the male. As its name indicates, the dominant color for the male is black. But when seen in the sun, a much richer and deeper combination of colors is revealed, with midnight blues and violets to iridescent blue-greens. Stunning! One can understand why its earlier common names were “Glossy Blackbird” or “Satin Bird.” He also sports a distinctive yellow eye. The female is a study in contrasts with her covert browns and black eye. 

Brewer’s Blackbirds eat mostly seeds and grains, but like many of our summer visitors they also eat many insects while they’re plentiful in summer. These are also fed to their hatchlings, as they are rich in protein—just the ticket for rapidly growing bodies. 

The Brewer’s can be a colonial breeder, in small groups, or even individual pairs. They normally build a nest of grass and twigs, strengthened with mud or cow dung, and then lined with finer materials or hair. It is often placed on the ground, though they might also build it in a small bush or even in a tall tree. They sometimes even choose a cliff side. The female chooses the nesting site and it can vary from year to year. 

To the trained eye, the Brewer’s is distinctive and easy to identify, but to the novice it is common to confuse this species with the European starling. They are easy to differentiate if one looks for common field marks. Whereas the male Brewer’s sports a yellow eye, the similar-sized starling has a black eye. Conversely, the Brewer’s has a black beak; the starling’s is yellow. Also, note the fine white spotting for which the starling gets its name. The Brewer’s has also a much longer tail. The female starling resembles the male, which contrasts with the Brewer’s. Sometimes the best way to identify a female Brewer’s is by her association with the male. 

There you go: now you’re an expert! Get out there and strut your stuff and mark your life-list with confidence. And keep safe; remember, birding is not for sissies. Happy Birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birding, A Bird in Hand, Brewers Blackbird

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