Bye-bye, blackbird profiling

(Un)Common Grackle gets his hackles up in my front yard. (April 18, 2011, photo by Terry Byrne)

My podmate at work expresses pure disdain for the grackle, the starling and, most vociferously, the parasitic cowbird, lumping them all into a generic “filthy blackbird” category. I wouldn’t call him bigoted. Just unenlightened.

A male brown-headed cowbird flits from the feeder, spilling some seed. (April 4, 2011, photo by Terry Byrne)

I feel compelled to speak up for a class of birds widely scorned just because they fill a niche of avariciousness, through no fault of their own. Like the harsh misnomer for “black” humans, avian color is relative. These birds aren’t black; they are iridescent and richly hued.

Technically, a European starling is not even in the blackbird family — it’s like a maligned stepchild, an immigrant, no less. And, surprisingly, such prized specimens as orioles, meadowlarks and bobolinks are blackbirds. Close cousins, anyway. Don’t even talk to me about crows; they’re members of the Corvidae family — think Mob rule.

As ubiquitous as blackish birds are, so too are the musical tributes to them: The Beatles’ “Blackbird” (notably off The White Album) has been covered untold times. The jazz standard “Bye Bye Blackbird” is about as familiar as the patter of “Sing a Song of Sixpence”:

Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye. Four and twenty blackbirds, Baked in a pie. When the pie was opened, The birds began to sing; Wasn’t that a dainty dish, To set before the king?

DUCK! A grackle launches from the fence straight for me. (April 24, 2011, photo by Terry Byrne)

Familiarity sure breeds contempt — shame on us for proposing to make pies of these winged wonders. I want nothing to do with the “Bye-bye, blackbird” mantra.

I recall the ominous serial outbreaks of red-winged blackbirds falling from the sky in Arkansas ringing in both 2011 and 2012 — eventually blamed on man’s fireworks fetish — and those shocking reports that the USDA is behind mysterious bird die-offs. Who are the villains here, Master Hitchcock? We all know you glued the crows’ feet to the roof of the schoolhouse to make them more menacing.

The only horror here is an act of man … that authorities would ever endorse shooting down innocent birds, as if the biosphere were our personal arcade. One Kentucky town opted for non-fatal cannon shoots as a more humane solution to controlling its avian explosion. “Humane.” Wonder how “human” came to occupy that word. I propose a new term: “Aviane.”

OK, I get the idea of too much of a good thing, but who can watch a murmuration and not be awestruck?

A flock of red winged blackbirds, Kansas, Nove...

A flock of red winged blackbirds, Kansas, November 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I love about blackbirds, and birds in general: They never disappoint.

Consistent in its behavior, a cowbird predictably will poach another nest by sneaking in her oddball eggs, perhaps freeing her from the perceived drudgery and responsibility of parenthood — much like Mayzie in Horton Hears a Who. Talk about a wild chick.

But we mustn’t judge. They’re just being cowbirds, the only way they know to be and what has proven successful for the species’ survival. Think of them as the 1%, hiring cheap labor as nannies. On second thought, that could breed more contempt.

Think of them, instead, as an energy-saving alarm clock. I thrill waking to the shrill, steady peals and squeals of grackles, like gleeful children grabbing the squeaky swings in our backyard playground.

Microraptor, covered in iridescent plumage. Art courtesy of Jason Brougham/University of Texas.

Birds, after all, help stem humanity’s loneliness. Even in tight times, when I can’t afford to refill the premium seed that has made my yard a five-starling oasis, “my birdies” rouse me each blessed morning in cheerful chitchat, a chorus of hope, like the Whos of Whoville who, even without presents, know you can’t keep Christmas from coming, nor the dawn from breaking.

Turns out, the most ancient birds looked a lot like grackles — the microraptor, a dinosaur bird with iridescent plumage and those same beady yellow eyes.

So have some respect for your elder species. Jesus, by the way, was also black. Black is the beginning and the end of the universe. Black is the color of my true love’s hair. Black is beautiful.

Here’s my humble tribute to these colorful black birds — especially the grackles — as viewed in my yard and that of my mother-in-law in Kentucky:

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