Birds of a Black Feather Flock Together!

Brown-headed cowbird murmuration. Photo by © Maria de Bruyn.


By Maria de Bruyn

Birds that are mainly black in color are abundant at my feeders right now. They belong to different ornithological families. The brown-headed cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds and common grackles are called “New World” blackbirds. They only live in the Western hemisphere in contrast to another species coming for my bird food—the European starlings. They are all quite beautiful when you look at them carefully.

The cowbirds and starlings distinguish themselves in the winter by gathering in large groups that can number up to hundreds of thousands of birds. They flock together as that offers some protection against being picked off by one of the raptors who feed on them, such as falcons and hawks. What makes these groups so fascinating is their coordinated flight, known as “murmuration.” They take to the air in enormous flocks, swirling and swooping in unison, making ever-changing and mesmerizing patterns without colliding.

Top left: male cowbird. Top right: female cowbird. Bottom left: adult starling. Bottom right: juvenile starlings. All photos by © Maria de Bruyn.

Brown-headed cowbird females and males look different from one another. The males have shiny black bodies and medium dark brown heads, while females are light brown in color.  They both have a unique voice, which sounds like water droplets falling or water gently gurgling. The cowbirds are disliked intensely by some birders because they evolved to become brood parasites, i.e., birds that lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. The cowbird chicks often hatch first and then dominate the nest to the detriment of the host parents’ own brood. I have indeed seen the female cowbirds watching the other birds in the yard that are building nests already.

European starling females and males look the same but different from their young. Adult starlings are glossy black with iridescent green highlights and light spots, while the juveniles are light brown—and crabby; they harass their parents for food! All the starlings we see today in the continental U.S. descended from small groups brought to New York, Cincinnati and Quebec in the 1870s. Starlings are omnivores and can consume large amounts of food crops. Their large roosting groups also leave dense deposits of droppings that can be toxic, so they too, are not favored by some bird lovers.

Top left: male red-winged blackbird. Top right: Female red-winged blackbird. Bottom: common grackle. All photos by © Maria de Bruyn.

The red-winged blackbirds are not so numerous at my feeders, so it’s a treat when they come by. Currently, I have only one male who is showing up regularly. The males can hide their red and yellow shoulder epaulets when they are trying to stay unnoticed, so this visitor must feel comfortable when he visits for seed. No accompanying females have come by, but I have seen one of these beautifully striped birds at a local wetland. I always enjoy seeing the red-wings, but rice farmers out West do not as the birds can be voracious crop consumers.

When the common grackle appears, I find it a treat because of its beautiful coloring. Depending on how the light hits them, these birds look either completely black or dark with beautiful iridescent purple, blue and violet highlights. The grackles are omnivores, eating invertebrates, rodents, other birds and nuts. They especially like corn, however, and farmers can lose entire crops and considerable income to them. When corn kernels disappear from the mixed seed in feeders, I can guess at least one visitor that has been enjoying them.

All photos: American crows. All photos by © Maria de Bruyn.

My last black avian visitors that come by almost daily are the largest birds and my favorites—the American crows. A mated pair has been coming by now for at least five or six years, and over the past few years they have also brought along their offspring after fledging. The young crows help their parents raise the next generation since most crows don’t begin reproducing until they are about four years old.

A Dutch proverb says that a flying crow will always catch something. At my house, the family flies in and enjoys bird seed, dried mealworms and using the bird bath for drinking and softening food. Mom and Dad Crow have also developed quite a taste for my homemade suet. Seeing them balance their huge bodies on the suet feeders as they enjoy the tasty treat is always fun.

Here’s hoping you get to enjoy seeing some beautiful black birds as spring progresses!

Maria de Bruyn participates in several nature-oriented citizen science projects, volunteers at Mason Farm Biological Reserve and the Orange County Senior Center, coordinates a nature-themed book club, posts on Instagram ( and writes a blog focusing on wildlife at

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