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Brewer's Blackbird - Unsung Hero of the Parking Lot

Updated on November 21, 2015
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To say that the Brewer's Blackbird is an unsung hero is not exactly a clever play on words, like you were thinking, but somewhat of an accurate description, because this species doesn't have much of a song at all. Besides its nondescript two note whistle, Euphagus cyanocephalus is an overall nondescript bird - the male's plumage being a plain glossy black; unadorned with the flashy red epaulets of its cousin the Red-winged Blackbird, while the female and juveniles wear a drab light brown. The "iridescent purple head" of the male, included in most descriptions, is not immediately noticeable. What the Brewer's Blackbird lacks in appearance, however, it makes up for with its charming, humble, patient personality. The bird is a beggar indeed, but an unobtrusive one. Whereas the Brown-headed Cowbird will jump up on your patio table to grab a bite off your pizza, and Grackles of all stripes will pollute the ambience of your outdoor dining with rude and boisterous squawks, the Brewer's Blackbird quietly bides its time beneath your table, spinning its high stepping circles while it patiently waits for a stray crumb to fall upon its plate.

Female Brewers Blackbird
Female Brewers Blackbird | Source

My Personal Experience with the Brewer's Blackbird

Out here in Southern California, the Brewer's Blackbird is one of those species even non-birders will notice, simply because of its ubiquitous distribution. Along with parking lots, these birds are frequently seen on schoolyards and basically anywhere humans congregate en masse, including the food court at Costco or the patio of the local Starbucks. From personal experience I know they are not confined to cities, because I have seen them flocking among the geysers at Yellowstone National Park. Perhaps they tend to follow humanity wherever human beings and their surplus food are located, regardless if the setting is a relatively natural one or the stark, paved over desert of an urban parking lot.

I feel fortunate to have the Brewer's Blackbird as the resident parking lot cleanup crew in my section of Chula Vista, California. If I drive down to a shopping center just a few miles away on the Sweetwater River, I am likely to have a pushy, demanding Brown-headed Cowbird land on the side view mirror of my car before I even dismount from the vehicle. The Cowbird is a very aggressive species that sticks close to riparian habitats, where it practices nest parasitism against the songbirds raising their broods in the thick foliage of streamside thickets. Cowbirds are demanding orphans who will not take no for an answer when dropping in to interrupt your lunch! When I drive out to Yuma, about 150 miles away, the parking lots in that arid locale are patrolled by the enormous, intimidating Great-tailed Grackle, a bird that flies like a wind up toy with a tail that somehow got skewed sideways. Where my mother lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, the Common Grackle, smaller than the Great-tailed but equally aggressive and boisterous, is the suburban bird of choice. Based upon the rather disagreeable personalities of feathered pavement patrollers elsewhere, I wouldn't choose anything but the quiet and courteous Brewers for my neighborhood..

I say neighborhood, but what I really am referring to are the shopping centers that service the neighborhood. When my home was new, and houses were still being built close by, Brewers Blackbirds would hang around the construction sites to modestly beseech the workers for handouts. When I first arrived in my home I put a feeder in the backyard, which caused the Brewers to line up on my fence by the dozens to patiently await their turn at the seed trough. Because they made a terrible mess on my fence I had to eventually take the feeder down. Shortly thereafter, once the houses were built out and lawns and trees took over, the Brewers Blackbirds disappeared from my block and retreated to the nearby shopping center parking lots, evidently more suitable habitat.

Many years ago, when I was working security at a construction site on Sundays, I would set up shop in the garage of a house under construction. Brewer's Blackbirds would actually walk into the garage, begging bowls in hand, and politely ask me for alms. Because of their friendly attitude I didn't mind throwing a few crumbs of bread their way, and the birds paid for their lunch by easing my solitude somewhat.

This Brown-headed cowbird even looks surly, and unlike its humble Icterid cousin the Brewer's Blackbird, won't ask permission to steal part of your lunch.
This Brown-headed cowbird even looks surly, and unlike its humble Icterid cousin the Brewer's Blackbird, won't ask permission to steal part of your lunch. | Source
In contrast to its peaceful Icterid cousin the Brewer's Blackbird, the Great Tailed Grackle, common in desert communities of the American Southwest, gives off an angry vibe.
In contrast to its peaceful Icterid cousin the Brewer's Blackbird, the Great Tailed Grackle, common in desert communities of the American Southwest, gives off an angry vibe. | Source

A Few Stale Facts

The Brewer's Blackbird is a New World Blackbird, a member of the Icteridae family consisting of 26 species. Among the constituents of this family are a few members that make sense, such as the superficially similar Red-winged Blackbird, and others that might surprise you, like the colorful Orioles and the Meadowlark. The Icterids are part of a songbird subset called the Nine-primaried Oscines, which includes the finches, sparrows,tanagers, and cardinals. Nine-primaried Oscines have nine visible primary feathers on each wing, with only a greatly reduced, vestigal 10th primary that other songbirds are fully equipped with.

On the Brewer's Blackbird, the audubon.org website succinctly says that it inhabits "Fields, prairies, farms, parks. Occurs in many kinds of open and semi-open country, including shrubby areas near water, streamside woods, aspen groves in mountain meadows, shores, farmland, irrigated or plowed fields. Often around human habitations, foraging on suburban lawns and in city parking lots." This description would seem to confirm what I have observed from personal experience. The Brewer's Blackbird is an adaptable bird that is capable of living in a variety of habitats, but seems to prefer to stick close to people.

The migration of the Brewer's Blackbird is poorly understood, although it makes sense that the birds in more northern climates, such as my Yellowstone flock, would migrate southward in the cold, snowy winters. I have noticed that during certain times of the year Brewer's Blackbirds will temporarily abandon our local parking lots for parts unknown, perhaps for breeding purposes.

The Brewer's Blackbird got its name from Thomas Mayo Brewer, a Boston publisher who pursued ornithology on the side and participated in a three volume work, "A History of North American Birds," as sort of a hobby. Brewer was also an occasional companion to legendary naturalist and bird artist John James Audubon, who christened our Brewer's Blackbird with the name of his friend.

The Brewer's Blackbird is an inquisitive sort that seems naturally attracted to humans and their activities.
The Brewer's Blackbird is an inquisitive sort that seems naturally attracted to humans and their activities. | Source

Local Plight

In his marvelous manual on San Diego bird life, the San Diego County Bird Atlas, ornithologist Philip Unitt writes about disturbing developments in local Brewer's Blackbird populations. "...something in the urban environment is not right, for Brewer's Blackbird is disappearing from many of its former haunts in San Diego." He reports that the Icterid has largely vanished from Point Loma and Balboa Park, both apparently suitable habitats, as well as the campus of San Diego State University, all places where it was once common.

Phil posits a debilitating foot disease as a possible cause for this decline, but then remarks that the species has always suffered from this condition, even in the abundance of its heyday several decades ago. Could the disease be taking a gradual toll, causing this bird to lose a step when competing for a crumb with a pushier Cowbird or a darting House Sparrow? Or could competition from other species be the principle cause for our gentle Blackbird's demise? Although Cowbird populations are now being held in check by trapping, an action deemed necessary to protect songbirds threatened by this specie's ruthless nest parasitism, could the Cowbird's population bubble that peaked in the late 90s have sent the numbers of the meekly supplicating Brewer's Blackbird into a tailspin from which it has not recovered? Or is the Brewer's Blackbird suffering from the same environmental conditions that have sent the population of its cousin, the Tricolored Blackbird, into sharp decline? Is pesticide use to blame? Although Brewer's Blackbirds are not the agricultural plague the Red WInged Blackbird is famed as being, they will jump in on a field raiding feast with flocks of their more colorful cousins, so perhaps pesticides building up in the bird's system could be taking a toll.

All of these reasons are, of course, speculative. Nobody really seems to be sure why the Brewer's Blackbird's numbers are dropping, but in this particular bird lover's unsolicited opinion, its reduction is to the detriment of our San Diego suburban landscape.

A little pricey, but a must for birding San Diego

A Brewer's Blackbird suffering from its common foot malady.
A Brewer's Blackbird suffering from its common foot malady. | Source

Parting Words

Perhaps you don't like the Brewer's Blackbird, or any Blackbirds at all, or even birds in general. Maybe their presence annoys or disturbs you when you are trying to down that Costco Chicken Bake without being beset upon by a descending avian plague of biblical proportions. The fact is, however, that we homo sapiens generate a lot of trash, we dispose of uncounted tons of excess food at parking lots across America, and if it wasn't for pavement scavenging birds; these feathered hyenas of our suburban mall Savannah, if you will, our shopping centers would be horrible, infection breeding vectors of disease. It is an unavoidable condition of our shopping experience that we will suffer aviation visitations at the outdoor food court, but if I could pick one bird to share my retail experience with, I would choose the patient, humble, unpretentious company of the Brewer's Blackbird.

Enjoy the antics of very friendly blackbirds!

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Do you enjoy the presence of birds at the outdoor food court?

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    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 22 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Mona. I've been a bird man since about 1999, though I always wondered what those things hanging out in the trees outside my window were called. I'm sure you have some lovely birds in your part of the world. It's a shame that I wasn't seriously into birding when I visited the Philippines in the 80s, but I did see some huge bats!

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 22 months ago from Philippines

      I love how you gave this indiscriminate little bird such personality, and I love your anecdotes about your experience with them and other birds. Didn't know you were a bird man:)

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 22 months ago from San Diego California

      Sujaya here our crows are members of the Corvidae, not Icteridae, and they are much bigger than the Brewer's Blackbird. They both can be found in parking lots. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 22 months ago from San Diego California

      Would love to see a Kea Lawrence. I'm going to look it up.

    • sujaya venkatesh profile image

      sujaya venkatesh 22 months ago

      we call it a crow

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 22 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Mel

      It's the Kea I was talking about, they're 'vandals'

      Lawrence

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 22 months ago from San Diego California

      I would love to do a New Zealand birding trip Lawrence and see some of your world renowned species. Thanks for the visit.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 22 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Mel

      The Blackbirds here have a distinctive bright yellow beak, we just know them as 'Blackbirds' but they're pretty friendly and not agressive, unlike some others I could mention.

      Enjoyed the hub

      Lawrence

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 23 months ago from San Diego California

      I would love to see a Yellow headed Blackbird Deb, as I have yet to scratch that bird off my list. I'll go down to Starbucks todsy and dispatch a few Brewers your way. I saw a couple sharing a latte the other day. If you do get some photos I would love to see them. Thanks for reading!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Six flew through last month, but they are not really prevalent here, either. Winter is supposed to be the best time for them here, so I will do my best to photograph a few. The video definitely shows their entertainment value, and I'm sure that I would enjoy their company. I still have yet to see the Yellow-headed Blackbird at the lake, though I am told that they do come around. I will try again in the spring.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 23 months ago from San Diego California

      They would be even cooler if they got their name because of their predilection for malty alcoholic beverages Eric. Maybe they did, and Audubon just said he named them after his friend to keep the temperance brigade quiet. Glad they are doing fine in Spring Valley, we snobby Chula Vista folks don't get out there much to check. Thanks for dropping by!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 23 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      A marvelous piece on our park companions. Out here Spring Valley way they seem to be doing just fine. It seems to me that the Raven and the Seagull are very mean to these guys. Thanks also for filling me in -- now I can act all the genius when these guys are around. A little bummed to hear it is named after a guy instead of beer guys.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 23 months ago from San Diego California

      Every day is like an episode of the Walking Dead for these creatures Larry. They have to find something to eat and keep from being eaten. That's called survival. We humans forget about survival, we disassociate ourselves from our biological roots, and then wreck the planet. Thanks for reading!

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 23 months ago from Oklahoma

      I always enjoy watching these birds out there surviving.

      Great hub!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 23 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Debika. I really appreciate you coming by to trad and for Tweeting this. I hope you have s lovely week.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 23 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Great approach here. I enjoyed reading this hub. You always find an interesting idea. Tweeted!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 23 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Dana. The BBs, as I call them, are pretty common across Southern California. I believe they would make nice pers, though it would be a shame to see them in a cage. I appreciate you dropping in!

    • Dana Tate profile image

      Dana Tate 23 months ago from LOS ANGELES

      Iv'e seen those birds from time to time but never knew the name of them. I had many birds as pets when I was a child and my uncle used to raise pigeons. Unfortunately they are all birds to me but they are so beautiful and free.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 23 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Linda. The American Crow is a common resident of our parking lots here, but more standoffish with people than the genial Brewers. We also have gulls of many species, Starlings, and occasionally a Tricolored, a species closely related to the Red-wing but with a white line across the epaulets. The Tricolored is in severe decline. Yes, I am one of those bird geeks that pays attention to these parking lot scavengers. Thanks for reading!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I see the Brewer's Blackbird in summer where I live, but after reading your hub I realize that I see fewer birds than I used to. The Red Winged Blackbird seems much more common. I find both of these birds in rural areas rather than in shopping centres. My local shopping centre bird is the Northwestern Crow. Thanks for sharing such an enjoyable and informative hub, Mel.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 23 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you dy0pxa. Glad you enjoyed it.

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      dy0pxa 23 months ago

      I like this hub on birds and is good to read.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 23 months ago from San Diego California

      I have seen them wandering about on the patios of saloons, Nell, and in the video one appears to be enjoying a beer, so maybe the name has a dual meaning. Thanks for reading!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 23 months ago from England

      lol! glad to know its called Brewers because of a guy, not a pub! what an interesting hub! I had never heard of it before, I learned something new, thanks!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 23 months ago from San Diego California

      Kimbesa, the Red-wings certainly are more reclusive around people. Sometimes I might see one in a parking lot, but it is rare. They keep their distance. I don't know if you might have some Rusty Blackbirds where you live, or not. They are a close cousin of the Brewers, I believe. Thanks for reading!

    • kimbesa2 profile image

      kimbesa 23 months ago from USA

      I'll watch for these guys in the summer. Looks like they migrate around the Great Lakes and some come over this way for breeding.

      By their behavior, they should stand out amongst the greedy grackles. The red-winged blackbirds don't usually come up close to the garden, though they frequent the farm fields around here.

      Thanks, Mel!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 23 months ago from San Diego California

      Gulls are another story, Mills P. Don't get me started on gulls! As nest raiders that have decimated the numbers of other sea birds, they are not among my favorites. But I guess it's not their fault, they are just doing what gulls do, and we humans have provided them with the garbage dumps and discarded food at shopping centers that fuels their numbers. A White Castle lunch date with a Brewer's Blackbird, however, would be enjoyable, that is if we had White Castle here. Thanks for reading!

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      Pat Mills 23 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      To share a bit of my local bird experience, I have seen gulls make their way to fast food parking lots. I don't mind their presence, as long as they don't look at me as edible. It's perfectly fine if a Brewer's blackbird, gull, or any other feathered flier shares my enjoyment of White Castle. They need to eat, too.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 23 months ago from San Diego California

      Aww, thanks Bill, I'm blushing at 8:13 AM already. I also had that line "Blackbird singing in the dead of night" spinning through my head when I was writing this. I've never heard a Blackbird singing in the dead of night, but it's a poignant line. Thanks for stopping by!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 23 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm singing "Blackbird" by the Beatles as I read this....love it of course, but then I'm a big fan of two things: all birds and your writing.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 23 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Reynold Jay. It is always good to find more bird lovers here on Hub Pages.

    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 23 months ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      I am fond of all birds. I go out of my way to view them--particularly on my morning jaunt. I can run anywhere I choose and most often choose to run at a local park and lake where all kinds of birds hang out. Around 300 geese have taken refuge there and I love the social interactions that they exhibit. I'll check out more of your Hubs in the series. Well done, Mel.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 23 months ago from San Diego California

      I think if they did find a cure it would be easy to line up the birds for vaccines, Jodah. I find your Lousy Jacks interesting. It is fascinating how completely different birds occupy the same ecological niche in different places, and can even be superficially similar. Thanks for reading!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 23 months ago from Queensland Australia

      A very interesting and enjoyable hub Mel. Unfortunately it seems the Brewer's Blackbird doesn't include Australia in it's habitat. I can't say the same for the Brown-headed Cowbird. Going by it's picture it looks like a bird we have here called the "Lousy Jack" or "Apostle Bird". They are pests and noisy scavengers that we refer to as "rats of the air" (see my early Cackleberry Farm hubs). I hope they find a cause of and cure the foot malady effecting the blackbirds.