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Brewer's Blackbird - Unsung Hero of the Parking Lot
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.
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.
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.
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
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.