After driving 2,500 miles from Oroville to Idaho to Oregon and Washington, it came as no surprise when I returned home to see a familiar sight: blackbirds chasing a crow! If all American communities have something in common, it is the presence and eternal vigilance of the blackbird in defending its nesting territory and the equally habitual disposition of the crow to intrude.
When the crow/blackbird conflict develops, caution is thrown to the wind, and they tumble into the sky in a silly sort of flurry amid a flapping of feathers, squawks, and high-pitched clucks with total disregard of any other dangers. Cars may whiz by, trains roar, winds blow, hawks scream, but those two ancient antagonists fuss and fight until the crow finally wings out of sight.
Nearly always there will be two or three blackbirds attacking the crow, caught red-handed no doubt in trying to sneak up on a nest of eggs or infants. In spite of being the stronger bird, Mr Crow has no stomach for that fierce, beady-eyed blackbird and always makes the solitary exodus as fast as its clumsy wings will take it!
Out on the Nevada desert where sagebrush reigns, a pair of blackbirds and a crow flew from over the hill and the fight was on. Even from the car I could see the white eye of the blackbird fairly blazing with anger and the crow in full retreat.
I wondered, firstly, why either species was out on the baking desert in heat-absorbing black clothes when they had wings and could have picked a cozier climate and, secondly, where the conflict had developed. Maybe there was an oasis over the hot hill where the blackbirds had claimed a tree, but why wasn't the crow nesting and attending to its business? Blame it on appetites - insects and seeds for the blackbird, and anything goes for the crow, including the infants of others!
In the Lost River Valley of Idaho, and near Bend, Oregon, and along the coast near Lincoln City, Oregon, and along the beach at Longview, Washington, and near Portland, and along the tree-lined streets of Portland, blackbirds and crows were going through the same old chase! Some things you can expect, and you expect the blackbird business all over the USA, just as you expect to see House Sparrows at nearly any reststop or coots on ponds.
Most of those feisty blackbirds - and there are several species of birds that are black - are Brewer's Blackbird, classified by John James Audubon in 1843 and named Quisculas breweri after Thomas Brewer, an 1870 Boston physician who specialized in ornithology and specifically oology - the study of bird eggs. It was later discovered, in one of those muddled early species-naming races, that birdman Wagler had found a Brewer's Blackbird specimen in a Mexican collection and named it Euphagus cyanocephalus at an earlier date in 1829, but Brewer kept his immortality in the common name.
The Brewer's is not the only bird that is black, however. The Red-winged Blackbird and the Yellow-headed Blackbird are nearly as spirited as the Brewer's in territorial defense, and there are 20 other species of the Troupial family in North American - a family that tends to gather in large flocks, especially after the nesting season, although small colonies sometimes nest together. Some contend that the Red-winged may be the most numerous bird in America.
Near the roaring water of the Afterbay Outlet on the Feather River, a pair of Brewer's were tending to a fledgling in a pine tree, stuffing the begging/flapping youngster, but also keeping an eye on me. In spite of the rumble of fishermen, campers, and boats, the female blackbird landed near me and began fussing with her shrill "spick, spick, spick." Blackbirds are suspicious of any creature in their territory, and I noted a pair of crows avoiding a flyby.
So, even though I haven't been down to the Rotary Nature Center at Lake Merritt in Oakland yet this summer, I know that the Brewer's Blackbirds are nesting in the park and scolding anyone near their nest. Every year that I worked there, the summer bird fuss was a certainty. They are fond of dive-bombing passing pedestrians - especially ladies with up-lifted hair styles - and maintain that vigilance until the babes finally are flying on their own. The courage of defensive bird parents is quite remarkable.
And I know that the blackbird frenzy is proceeding at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, along with the nesting Wood Ducks, herons, egrets, and other residents. You will hear more protest from blackbirds than any other as you step from your car or approach a cattail swamp, since the birds have had no confirmation that the alien man is not a dangerous beast with intent to harm those precious babies. Even though swamps are provided and bird houses built by people who care for bird survival, it seems to be written in the blackbird's genes to distrust the one who sometimes carries metal weapons of mass destruction.
Watch the blackbirds, and know that our native land has been blessed with a variety of wildlife, a certain surplus to allow for the existence of the predator as well, and a wild spirit that never wants to say die! Long live the bird!
© 2000 Rex Burress
June 28, 2000