Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dark Matters

Common Raven

I don't care what anyone says, but ID'ing black birds(note that I am not writing "blackbirds":) can be a bit tricky.  There are still many to find, but here is a list on several that have made me glance once, twice, thrice........

Great-tailed Grackle

Grackles should be easy to ID and yet there can be doubt.  In Southern Arizona, a Common Grackle would be rare, but the Great-tailed Grackle(above) is very common.  So when I was in Colorado Springs, I knew I could find a Common Grackle, but the issue was that both Grackles were found there.  How would I distinguish between the two?  When I spotted several on a branch(below), I actually stood longer than normal to ID the call and look for the field marks to make sure I did in fact see the Common Grackle.  Pale Yellow iris, dark bluish glossy head and heavy bill were several of the things I looked at first.  The rain in the area made it a little difficult to pick out the bluish tones in the head and yellow eye......but I was able to see it better with my own eyes than that of the camera.

Common Grackle

But how do you tell a Brewer's Blackbird apart from a Common Grackle?  It also has a yellow eye.  The difference?  Habitat and behavior help. But body shape, slight difference in the bill and coloring also can help with ID.  The Brewer's likes to feed from the ground.  But in this case, the calls are different and I was able to quickly ID the bird.

Brewer's Blackbird
But what's this blackbird???   Before heading to Guatemala, I studied the calls and behaviors of this Melodious Blackbird below.  The call is very distinct and can be heard above all else in the canopy tree tops.  They usually fly in pairs around water ways. Both bob their heads up and down while calling to each other.  Sometimes they'll sit in opposite trees calling to one another.

But I tell you.....that call!  It is so distinct that you can't miss it.  I dropped what I was doing to capture this bird on camera.  Birding by ear can be a powerful tool.

Melodious Blackbird

Another black bird, related to the cuckoo family, is the Groove-billed Ani.  They are very common in Central America and make me smile.  They remind me of muppets with their scraggly and monster looking faces.  Again their call is distinct and I had it memorized from the time it came to Tucson.  I have it recorded on my phone because it's one of my favorite bird calls next to the Loon.   They are larger birds and appear to lazily perch on fence posts in pastures or on open branches around rivers, etc.

Groove-billed Ani

So how about those "other" black birds?  Crows and Ravens??!!!  In Tucson, it's possible to spot the Common and Chihuahuan Ravens.  But how do you tell them apart?  More common are the Common Ravens.  They generally fly in pairs, but can be seen at times flying in great numbers.  Even the experts can have a difficult time ID'ing these birds from afar.  Chihuahuan Ravens will flock around Pecan orchards here and of course, open grasslands. They have a shorter bill with long nasal bristles. However, they fly a bit differently than the closely related Common Raven.  The Common Raven "rows" its way across the airways.

American Crows

And the American Crow is a smaller bird with a large bill but much smaller than that of a Raven. The calls are the easiest to recognize. Understanding their calls, makes the ID a snap!

European Starling

European Starlings are black but very easy to ID with their body and bills.  Their starry patterns remind me of outer space.  But still.....from a distance, I have to really look.  But if I can see those triangular wings, short square tails and that stocky body, I know right away that I'm witnessing the European Starling in action.  They also tend to flock.  Again their calls are distinct.

Common Raven

One black bird(or blackbird:) that is an easy ID is the Bronzed Cowbird....if you can see the red eye:)

Bronzed Cowbird

The Brown-headed Cowbird at maturity has a black body with a brown head....hence the name. Both birds have VERY cool calls.  They sound like spacy, liquidy whistles!  AGAIN another easy ID!  Many people miss this one and I have to point it out to birders visiting from out of state. I've helped 3 birders add the Bronzed Cowbird to their life lists.  Watching someone add a cowbird to their life list makes me smile.  We take them for granted here as they are rather common.

Female Brewer's Blackbird

Here's a flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds below in flight.  You see how they could be difficult to ID?  Usually they mix with other blackbirds to add to the confusion.

Flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds

Many out of state people come to find our Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  I've witnessed this bird in the tens of thousands.  Twice I have been caught in the middle of the tornado energy and it made me smile.  My video below captures the many Yellow-headed Blackbirds making a landing in the fields adjacent to the gas station.

 I was filling up my gas once and a black cloud descended around the parking lot.  Another time I was birding in Tucson and an entire flock flew around me.  I was surrounded by magic!

Yellow-headed Blackbirds

These blackbirds are easy to ID.  Their calls are varied and diverse but thankfully their colors stand out among the rest.  Someone asked me once, "What are those blackbirds with a yellow head?"  Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  "Oh, that's easy."  Sure is. 
So is this Red-winged Blackbird below. Interestingly enough, the female looks nothing like the male.  To a beginner, they look like different birds.  Is it a Waterthrush?  A Finch?  Nope.  Just the female Red-Winged Blackbird:)
Red-winged Blackbird

Finally I end with a Chihuahuan Raven. Of all these black birds I shared today, I think the Common and Chihuahuan Ravens are probably the most difficult to ID.  This may sound weird, but when I see a Chihuahuan Raven, I just "know".  I'll mark them down wherever I am to keep tabs on their location.  On Ebird, there is a Chihuahuan Raven expert who monitors our populations and I was able to email and chat with him about his studies.  I have many more black birds to find, but here are the ones I've been able to ID so far.
Chihuahuan Raven

Common Raven

Finally, I'd like to add one last thing about taking pictures of black birds or animals.  It's really difficult!!!  I find that having a very light background brings the detail out on these birds.  Below is a pic of our cat Cassie.  She sometimes blends right in with the surroundings.  

Cassie-the black kitty
Happy Halloween everyone!!!


  1. Ty, co znasz się na ptakach, masz czasami problemy z ich rozpoznaniem, a ja mam ciągle problemy. Podoba mi się filmik. Ptaki wyglądają jakby się huśtały i raz jeden, raz drugi wydaje głos. Pozdrawiam.
    You who know a lot about birds, you are sometimes problems with their diagnosis, and I have still problems. I like the movie. Birds look like a swinging and once, the second time it voice. Yours.

  2. these birds are all so handsome. the ani is so cool!

  3. Muy buenas fotos... Un abrazo desde Murcia...

  4. Well I learned a lot more than I knew about black birds today. Your pictures are all excellent but you know which one is my fav!! Cassie you pretty one! Today is your day!

  5. Great photos! We have the red winged blackbird here in the rural areas in the spring and summer. They never come into town.

  6. Cool post on the Black Birds. The Ani is one of my favorites but the eye on the Bronzed Cowbird is beautiful. Gorgeous photos, Chris!

  7. A really interesting post. Our Australian corvids are a challenge too, unless we hear them call. In Australia Starlings (also introduced here) are known to mimic some other calls which can add to the fun!

  8. That's a Lot of Black birds.

    The common Raven's tail doesn't look diamond-shaped like the other.

  9. HI Chris wwhat an interesting and informative post illustrated by good shots. Love you cat at the end. lovely shot

  10. Great photos Chris and a really interesting post - you have certainly done your "homework" :) The calls on the you-tube video are really distinctive.

    Hope you enjoyed Hallowe'en!

  11. An interesting post, Chris. You have rather more black birds than we do. Great photos of some of your finds, but my favourites are the Chihuahuan Raven - and Cassie!

  12. We have a similar issue here with our Ravens - but it all adds to the fun!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  13. When I lived in South Dakota I saw yellow headed and red winged black birds. We get grackles here as well as red wings. A town nearby gets thousands of blackbirds every evening. They arrive in massive clouds and poop all over the place.

  14. Great post Chris, but look at the bill on that bird you identified as a Brown-headed Cowbird. It's actually a female Brewer's Blackbird. The female brown-headed looks more finch like and it's beak is stubby and fat. I just thought you would want to know and you don't have to post this comment if you don't want to. But this does go to prove your point about how tricky blackbird I.D. is!

  15. Chris, you did a great job photographing all these blackbirds. I love the starling shot and the raven in flight! It's so difficult to get the settings and the lighting right on these birds. I love the flock of cowbirds and the yellow-headed blackbirds. The melodious blackbirds singing is incredible!

    With blackbirds, I find bill and head shape is key as well as the tail shape. It all takes practice and experience but I find I get better every year. Starlings and grackles are easier to tell, but a flock of Brewer's or redwings in flight can look pretty similar to me! Keep up the good work!


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