Coming back to blackbirds again, here are some words I’ve previously written about blackbirds of this region.


“Pesky, doggone blackbirds.

“All those pesky, doggone blackbirds are classified Icteridae in the Troupial family. Their family name, Troupial, refers to their habit of gathering into flocks. Well-named pesky critters.

“Eight species of blackbirds are normally seen in Jackson Hole. You have yer Brewer’s blackbird, and yer red-winged blackbird, and yer yellow-headed blackbird, and yer bobolink, and yer brown-headed cowbird, and yer common grackle, western meadowlark (!) and Bullock’s or northern oriole (!!). A rather varied group. They share characteristics, of course: sharp-pointed and conical bills; males and females usually not resembling each other; and a tendency to walk, not hop. Most flock.

“Starlings aren’t blackbirds. They look at a distance like blackbirds with short tails, and they flock with each other and with blackbirds, but they are in another family. Common ravens, common crows and magpies aren’t blackbirds either. That’s OK; we have enough true blackbirds.

“If you want to you can distinguish among the true blackbirds. The western meadowlark is easy: It’s brown and yellow, has white outer tail feathers; the black is confined to a broad “V” on the yellow breast. The northern oriole is easier yet: The male is bright orange with a black crown, orange cheeks, and a narrow white wing bar. Orioles nest in trees and feed in trees, zipping about as tree-feeding birds do. Other blackbirds walk.

“Blackbirds walk, strut, and seem to swagger — all of which is an illusion. Just anatomy. They mostly have loud, raucous or squawky voices. Male Brewer’s blackbirds have yellow eyes. Male brown-headed cowbirds have what you’d expect—coffee colored at that. Grackles are quite large and their tails are long and creased. The red on the wings of red-wings is confined to shoulder patches, or “epaulets,” and to males. Male yellow-headed blackbirds have areas of white in their wings that show in flight. Bobolinks are small and behave like songbirds; the male is solid black below and largely white or whitish above. They have a kind of pleasant, tinkling song.

“Blackbirds, and, for that matter, those birds which resemble them, are on the whole beneficial. They eat insects primarily, and beetles and such delicacies. At times, as in winter when in some places they concentrate in huge flocks in relatively small areas, they can be quite a nuisance. Then the Daily will carry stories of some town in the Southeast that has a temporary population of a million red-wings and starlings, perhaps, flying in to roost each night. Messy. Noisy. Aggressive. Overbearing. Birds, after all, are only human.”

— Originally published on Aug. 26, 1981, in the Jackson Hole News

Field notes: Cowbirds are small black birds that have evolved with bison. Bison are nomadic and the birds developed to lay their eggs in other birds’ nests.

An observer called to say she saw tiny birds that looked like chickadees feeding a bigger baby bird in their nest. That big baby was cowbird. After a cowbird leaves an egg in another birds’ nests it hatches and the other birds feed it, often leaving their own to die, for they hatch later than the cowbirds.

The nests chosen are usually of smaller birds and when the cowbirds hatch they are bigger than their companion eggs, bigger than their companion hatchlings and more successful in obtaining food from the adult birds attempting to satisfy demanding offspring.

As a result, the cowbird hatchling develops faster than does his nest fellow. As a result, cowbird hatchlings develop quicker and are bigger, grow faster, take a bigger share of food and often simply muscle their fellow hatchlings out of the nest. A mystery is how cowbirds find each other to live with the bison who are moving around their countryside.

In fact, this is the time of year that young birds and young animals dominate the wildlife scene. Midsummer and the critters have to grow and survive. Here are some examples of what can be seen around Jackson Hole in the last week or so:

Alice Richter called to report several Eastern king birds and goldfinches coming to ripening on July 22.

Dan Forman called the same day to say he was brought in a common grackle though it may be a starling but dark beak.

Benj Sinclair observed a 2- to 3-year-old black bear trying to cross Route 22 around noon Tuesday just east of the Wilson bridge, heading north, however. The traffic was so heavy that when it approached it bolted back into the forest. Benj also saw a pine marten up by Ski Lake at 8:30 in the morning.

Mac Dukart found a rubber boa in Wilson Canyon. Joan Lucas reported a flying squirrel sleeping in her bird feeder when she went to take it in at night.

Phyllis Green saw sparrows picking off bugs from car bumpers at a Teton Village parking lot and feeding them to young.

Tim Griffith still is counting 68 bird species at South Park Wildlife Management area and 40 species on Nature Mapping float trips each week. He is surprised the numbers have not dropped off as is usual in mid-summer.

Jan Hayse watched a vole cross the sidewalk on July 26 in West Jackson.

Some of these notes were taken from the Jackson Hole Bird and Nature Club meeting with Frances Clark. Frances’ passion is botany and the wildflower progression should be witnessed if you have an opportunity.

Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature. Contact him at

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