EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> As 2015 fades into memory, so does the unusually warm winter weather. The new year arrives cold and clear albeit with blue skies and a brilliant sun. A dusting of snow blows in covering the unwary shoots sprouting in the flower beds now protected with a layer of mulched leaves. The filled feeders are soon alive with birds.
Chickadees and titmice dart in, grab a seed and then retreat to a nearby branch to eat the morsel. Nuthatches interrupt the woodpeckers at the suet. A posse of bluejays shriek and disturb the nuthatches. Below the mourning doves wiggle and waddle about pecking here and there among the spilled detritus ignored by the few juncoes.
Mr. Cardinal comes with his friends both male and female. Then, a small flock of twittering goldfinches descends and lands on every perch along the tube feeders.
When I approach the window, the entire collection flies up. "Was that a blackbird?" I ask Danny. We scan the trees and finally Danny says, "There...it's there slightly behind the narrow trunk." Indeed, the scarlet epaulets flash as the bird moves out along a limb.
A red-winged blackbird! Our awaited harbinger of spring flies back under the feeder and snags a few seeds. Alas, winter has just begun. This is perhaps a late-lingering individual who dallied a bit too long and lost sight of his south-flying companions.
The blackbirds of our area — redwings, cowbirds and grackles — are Icterids, a New World family that also includes the meadowlarks, bobolinks and orioles. The La Brea Tar Pits on California caught many animals and birds including blackbirds, evidence they have been around for thousands of years.
This bird is common across the country, arriving in small noisy battalions in the spring, disseminating to every marsh, wetland and swamp to breed, and then gathering in enormous flocks murmurating overhead before heading back south for the winter. Birder or non-birder, everyone is quite aware of these avians.
The males, the first to arrive in the spring, are quite distinctive with their red shoulder patches edged with yellow on a body of gleaming black feathers. Females are brown and stripy. Their Latinate name is Agelaius phoeniceus, derived from agelaius meaning "belonging to a flock" or "gregarious" and phoeniceus meaning "deep red." Note that the blackbird in England and Europe is a solidly black bird with a yellow beak, but it is a thrush related to our robin. In fact, it looks like our robin in Goth dress with yellow lipstick.
In 1842, Audubon and naturalists of his era recognized three distinct Agelaius species in America: the red-winged blackbird, the red-and-white shouldered (tricolored) and the red-and-black shouldered (bicolored). By the time Arthur Cleveland Bent is amassing information for his "Life Histories of North American Birds," there are two species: the tricolored (red and white) and the redwing divided into 13 subspecies described with names usually associated with areas such as Florida, Gulf Coast, Northwestern, Kern, Nevada.
The AOU has long been divided between proponents of what determines a species. Lumpers vs. splitters. Before internal biology, color and size variants as well as interbreeding determined subspecies. Splitters had a field day with calipers and comparisons. Now that we are in the realm of DNA distinctions, lumpers have prevailed and once again the books carry the same three species that Audubon listed: Redwing, Tricolored and Bicolored.
A sad day though for avid listers whose numbers are reduced every time subspecies are lumped, but canny birders record the varieties they spot because, in a future divisive day, splitters may elevate a subspecies back to the level of species.
The days are lengthening. Hard to believe spring is only three months away. Soon we'll hear that wonderful sound which I transliterate to "pot-pour-reeee," or, as in the books, "conk-ar-reeee." Not only are we aware of the birds when they arrive in the spring, but also, if we venture too close to a nest, those protective males will fly directly at you or will dive-bomb your head.
When breeding, blackbirds eat mostly insects, but the rest of the year are dedicated seed eaters. So much so that a shimmering flock may decimate a newly-planted field in the spring or a soon to be harvested field in the fall. A real annoyance to farmers especially when the surge of gathering blackbirds reaches the millions. Even worse are the descriptions of hundreds of blackbirds falling from the sky like giant black hail stones after the angry farmers have strewn poison about to protect their crops.
Our blackbird stays only a day reminding me of the 13th stanza from Wallace Steven's "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:"
"It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar limbs."