Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

Red-winged Blackbird male AGELAIUS PHOENICEUS photo taken by Bea Laporte of Ontario
photo by Bea Laporte in Ontario

from the February 23, 2003 Newsletter, written near Natchez, Mississippi, USA:

This week's warm, moist air flowing across chilled ground has given us some fine fogs. On Thursday morning as I fixed breakfast the tops of the big Pecan trees above me were hardly visible, just dim witch- finger silhouettes of branches reaching upward through fog billowing from the south. The ghostly feeling was suddenly changed when about 50 Red-winged Blackbirds, AGELAIUS POENICEUS, flew into the big Pecan's top branches.

The English language has wonderful terms describing gatherings of certain creatures. You know that you can speak of a "covey" of quail and a "gaggle" of geese. It's also accurate to speak of a "cast" of hawks, a "charm" of goldfinches, a "congregation" of plovers, an "exaltation" of larks, a "murder" of crows, a "muster" of peacocks, a "nide" of pheasants, a "sedge" or "siege" of cranes, a "skein" of geese, a "spring" of teals and a "watch" of nightingales. I wonder if there's also a special name for a gathering of Red- winged Blackbirds, for sometimes when they're in flocks they do something amazing.

The birds up in my Pecan hopped from branch to branch fluffing their feathers and shimmying exactly as birds do when bathing. Sometimes birds take "dew baths" by rubbing themselves against dew-wet leaves, but these blackbirds weren't rubbing against anything. My impression was that the fog was so thick that just by fluffing their feathers they permitted enough wetness to enter their plumage to feel as if they were bathing.

Red-wing Blackbird female AGELAIUS POENICEUS, photo by Bea Laporte of Ontario
photo by Bea Laporte in Ontario
The most extraordinary aspect of the gathering was the sound they made. You're probably familiar with the pretty call a Red-winged gives in a springtime cattail marsh. When doing so it arches its body forward as it spreads its wings to the side, exposing beautiful red epaulets on its wings. Usually its strange and wonderful song is given as a lady is being courted, or territory is being defended. That wasn't the case Thursday, yet the sound was a little similar -- the same OOKALEEEEEEE call but then with a long-drawled woody rattle trailing off. And this being done by about 50 birds! The effect was something like a bunch of flutists jamming with a few snare drummers playing the rims. Well, not really; there is no good comparison, for the effect was unique.

Friday on National Public Radio they presented a segment on vast clouds of blackbirds that had descended on Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the northern Delta. I'll bet those folks heard some fancy fluting, too.