Blackbird, Blackbird

Black Vultures

It’s not easy to tell birds apart sometimes, especially if they are the same color, like black. There are some things to watch for which can help. If you see large birds circling in the sky like this, they are probably vultures, riding the warm air thermals. But how to tell which kind of vulture? There are two, you know. Click on the picture to enlarge it, and look at the wingtips on these birds – just a bit of white at the tips means they are Black Vultures.

Black Vulture

Closer up, you can see that the Black Vulture has a black head, of course. They are smaller than the Turkey Vulture, with a short, stubby tail. Black Vultures are aggressive, and will steal a find from Turkey Vultures.

Turkey Vulture

A flying Turkey Vulture is much larger, and holds its wings in a shallow V shape called a dihedral. Also, you will notice the silver feathers on the underside of its wings. It’s very distinctive. Turkey Vultures have a red head, which you will only see if it lands nearby. Turkey Vultures find a carcass by their sense of smell. Most birds have a poor sense of smell, but Turkey Vultures can smell a dead mouse under the leaves from 200 feet over the forest canopy. Oil companies in Texas would put the scent of a dead animal in their gas lines then look for circling vultures to find a leak in the line.

American Crow

OK, here’s and important distinction. You see a big black bird in the sky. Is it a vulture or a crow and how can you tell the difference?  A vulture holds its wings out and soars without flapping much at all.  A crow flaps its wings pretty consistently to stay aloft. Crows used to be just country birds when I was a girl, but now they can be found all over town.

Juvenile Bald Eagle

Once in a while that black bird in the air looks really huge, and it just might be a juvenile Bald Eagle.  Eagles take five years to develop their white head and tail. I once spotted an Eagle among a circling kettle of vultures!

Red Winged Blackbird

How about some smaller black birds? In the spring Red Winged Blackbirds are all over, singing conkoree as they defend their territories against other males! The red epaulet on the shoulder makes this identification easy, but sometimes you only see the yellow, and not the red. They are still adult male Red Winged Blackbirds, but they are being peaceful and non-aggressive, usually at a feeding area. The female looks like the biggest sparrow you ever saw.

European Starling

The European Starling is the most common black bird. They were first introduced to the United States in 1890.  Rumor has it that one hundred starlings were released in Central Park in hopes that all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works would become established in the New World.  In the case of the starling, the wish became reality.  In the intervening hundred years the starling population has grown to an estimated 150-200 million birds. European starlings are habitat generalists, able to exploit a large variety of habitats, nest sites and food sources.  They will eat almost anything, including a diverse array of invertebrates, fruits, and seeds.  In addition, they are lowland birds that do well in large open areas such as fields and marshes.  These traits, in combination with a long-standing ability to coexist easily with humans, has enabled them to take advantage of agricultural fields, livestock facilities, sewage treatment facilities, garbage dumps, cities and other human related sources of food and nest sites.  European starlings are highly colonial, gathering in huge flocks which may number in the thousands, to feed and roost.  They are aggressive and gregarious and easily compete with native birds for resources. 

Brown-headed Cowbird

Starlings may often be confused with Brown-headed Cowbirds. The Brown-headed Cowbird is a stocky blackbird with a fascinating approach to raising its young. Females forgo building nests and instead put all their energy into producing eggs, sometimes more than three dozen a summer. These they lay in the nests of other birds, abandoning their young to foster parents, usually at the expense of at least some of the host’s own chicks. Once confined to the open grasslands of middle North America, cowbirds have surged in numbers and range as humans built towns and cleared woods.

Common Grackle

Common Grackles are blackbirds that look like they’ve been slightly stretched. They’re taller and longer tailed than a typical blackbird, with a longer, more tapered bill and glossy-iridescent bodies. Grackles walk around lawns and fields on their long legs or gather in noisy groups high in trees, typically evergreens. They eat many crops (notably corn) and nearly anything else as well, including garbage. In flight their long tails trail behind them, sometimes folded down the middle into a shallow V shape. Common Grackles appear black from a distance, but up close their glossy purple heads contrast with bronzy-iridescent bodies. A bright golden eye gives grackles an intent expression. You’ll often find Common Grackles in large flocks, flying or foraging on lawns and in agricultural fields. They strut on their long legs, pecking for food rather than scratching. At feeders Common Grackles dominate smaller birds. When resting they sit atop trees or on telephone lines, keeping up a raucous chattering.

American Coots

Yes, you can even find black birds on the water. Often mistaken for a duck, the American Coot is a common waterbird. Its all black body and white chicken-like beak distinguish this swimming rail from the real ducks. Although it swims like a duck, the American Coot does not have webbed feet like a duck. Instead of having all the toes connected by webs, each coot toe has lobes on the sides of each segment.

You can find many of these birds at the Nature Preserve, so keep your eyes open as you hike around!

Naturally yours,