A Winter Flock of Rusty Blackbirds

A flock of more than 200 Blackbirds has been spending a lot of time in our neighborhood, often somewhere around the small pond near the entrance to the subdivision. You wouldn’t think it would be hard to get a good look at a few of so many birds out in the open! But I’ve spent a lot of frustrating time trying to see them well, and I still don’t feel confident in identifying a Rusty or a Brewer’s Blackbird quickly. But I’m working on it.

In the winter months, Blackbirds often travel together in mixed flocks that include both common resident species and less-common species – like Rusty or Brewer’s Blackbirds, which spend their breeding seasons further north or west. A few of the birds in our flock are Common Grackles – easy enough to identify with their long tails and heavy bills. A few are Red-winged Blackbirds, whose red shoulder-patches (on the males) make them also easy to spot.

The rest seem to be mostly, if not all, Rusty Blackbirds, and these are the ones I’m still trying to learn to recognize more confidently. They’re smaller than Grackles, with shorter tails and thin, pointed bills, and rust-red highlights in their winter plumage, which give them their name, but are not always easy to see. If there are any Brewer’s Blackbirds among the flock, I haven’t identified them yet for sure. Usually I see them all while walking, when I’m not carrying a scope.

This afternoon, I found three Rusty Blackbird males feeding together on the faded grass of a lawn, well apart from the rest of the flock, and got my first chance this season to study them closely. These three looked mostly black, with yellow eyes, and a stippling of rusty-bronze across their upper backs, necks and heads. They held themselves erect, head high, when walking around, and even when leaning down to forage, kept a certain fine posture.

In the flock itself, the female Rusty Blackbirds are easier to pick out than the males, because of their tawny color and distinctive facial patterns, with a dark line or patch through the eye, and a pale buff band above it. But even they can be frustrating in a flock of mixed species that’s milling around in constant motion. The markings are rarely exactly the way they look in the field guides, and there seem to be infinite variations, so after several minutes, sometimes they all just turn into a blur of “blackbirds” and I walk on. But it’s fun to have them around and have a chance to try again tomorrow.

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