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For the sake of clarity, we’d just like to kick this off by reminding you that there’s a significant difference between a blackbird and a black bird. Comprehending this distinction is important, as we’ve realized a lot of people assume these words can be used interchangeably.
The phrase “black bird” refers to any feathered species that are black in color. While “blackbird” is in reference to all the members who belong to the Icteridae family. Take the raven, for instance. Because its feathers are black, we usually classify it as a black bird. But is it part of the blackbird family? Nope.
Nevertheless, that’s not to say that it’s impossible to find a species that’s a blackbird, and a black bird. As a matter of fact, the reason why so many people keep getting confused is that most of them fall into both categories.
In today’s guide, we’ll pay more attention to the black birds of North America, specifically those that have built homes in Texas. And as you’ll come to learn, their populations are widely spread throughout the continent.
|Weight:||1.1–2.7 oz (32–77 g)|
|Length:||6.7–9.1 in (17–23 cm)|
|Wingspan:||12.2–15.8 in (31–40 cm)|
This species is not just common in Texas, but in North America as a continent. One of the first things that you’ll take note of the minute you spot one is how boldly colored they usually are. The males are always glossy-black and have small patches of yellow, sometimes scarlet, on their shoulders.
The females, on the other hand, resemble a sparrow. They are relatively bigger, dark, and have streaks of brown. If you hear them singing, just know spring is around the corner.
Red-winged Blackbirds are migratory birds. They like to migrate in large flocks, to increase their chances of survival. They are also very territorial.
Seeing as they are diurnal creatures, they’ll retreat to their evening roosts once the sun starts to set in the evening. But at the crack of dawn, they’ll be ready to disperse so that they can fill their bellies.
Red-winged Blackbirds are active feeders—you’ll find them lifting stones, moving branches, throwing sticks, and opening up the reeds’ leaf bases, trying to look for hidden insects. If there’s nothing to find, they’ll settle for seeds, berries, or fruits.
|Weight:||3.7–6.7 oz (105–190 g)|
|Length:||15.0–18.1 in (38–46 cm)|
|Wingspan:||18.9–22.8 in (48–58 cm)|
The Great-tailed Grackle is huge, has an oversized tail (especially the males), and a variety of call notes. They like to forage for food far away from the human settlements, and only come into town at night, when everybody’s asleep. We know they always show up at night because their roosts are very noisy and irritating.
Where they forage depends on their habitat. If there are shallow waters around, they’ll go there to try their luck. But if there’s none, a large flock will comb the shrubs and trees. Being omnivorous, it’s safe to assume their diet is varied to a great degree.
We’ve seen them eat other birds, their nestlings, and even eggs. In the water, they’ll look for tadpoles, snails, worms, fish, etc. When they want to snack, they’ll go for fruits, grain, seeds, and even grains.
Since they nest in colonies, you’ll always find a large community occupying the same territory. We cannot give you specific detail of how the site looks because it varies. The only common denominator is that they often go for sites defined by dense vegetation, near water. and to ensure no water gets to the nest, they’ll build it at least 2 inches above the ground.
It’s the female’s responsibility to build the nest and feed the younglings.
|Weight:||2.1–3.0 oz (60–86 g)|
|Length:||8.3–9.8 in (21–25 cm)|
|Wingspan:||1.8–2.4 oz (50–67 g)|
This species is small-sized, and part of the Icteridae family. So don’t be surprised to see them classified together with the Red-winged Blackbird, Rusty Blackbird, and common Grackle. They are also part of the bird community in Texas and have built homes in all kinds of habitats.
The Brewers are a resilient species, and that’s why not all of them migrate. We don’t know what criteria they use to decide who goes or who stays, but when it’s time to move for wintering, you’ll see some of them leave.
They were named after Thomas Mayo Brewer, an American naturalist who was a renowned zoologist and ornithologist. Brewers are one of the most social birds we’ve come across, as they are often found in flocks.
They like to practice monogamy while breeding. You’ll only see them with a different partner if the previous one has passed on. The female Brewer is brown, but the males are fundamentally black, with shades of metallic green and midnight blue. They are also glossier than most male species.
Hunting this species is considered illegal, as it has been protected under the Migratory Bird Act.
|Weight:||1.7–2.8 oz (47–80 g)|
|Length:||8.3–9.8 in (21–25 cm)|
|Wingspan:||14.6 in (37 cm)|
We were sad to learn that the Rusty is on the list of migratory birds with a population that’s rapidly declining. Researchers believe in the last 40 or so years, their numbers have declined by an estimated 85%.
Identifying the Rusty Blackbird is not easy, seeing as it shares very similar traits with the Common Grackle and Brewer’s Blackbird. The females usually present a plumage that’s charcoal gray, while the males appear glassy black. They both have rusty patches on their feather tips.
The species is migratory, so it won’t have a problem leaving should it feel like the weather conditions aren’t favorable or the food sources are depleted. Their ideal habitat is damp, meaning they’re mostly found in moist crop fields, along riverbanks, near lakes, or in flooded forests.
|Weight:||1.6–3.5 oz (44–100 g)|
|Length:||8.3–10.2 in (21–26 cm)|
|Wingspan:||16.5–17.3 in (42–44 cm)|
The species has a weirdly large head and a sharply pointed beak. Both the females and the males have yellow heads, hence the name. The only difference is that those of the females and juvenile males are proportionately duller. They are one of the few species that don’t exhibit sexual dimorphism regarding size or shape.
If you’d like to meet the Yellow-Headed Blackbird, you’ll have to travel to the west of the Mississippi River. They’ll either be in Canada during summer or in the west-central states. And during the cold season, they’ll be part of the Texan community or visiting friends in Mexico.
Yellowheads eat anything and everything. They are classified as omnivores, as they usually devour meat any time they aren’t snacking on plant foods. You’ll find them foraging in the same habitat as the red-winged blackbird, but because they are a more dominant species, the red-winged population always steers clear of them.
|Weight:||2.1–3.4 oz (60–96 g)|
|Length:||7.9–9.1 in (20–23 cm)|
|Wingspan:||12.2–15.8 in (31–40 cm)|
The European Starling was previously known as the Common Starling. It was introduced to us by the European settlers in 1890, to control the insect invasion that was plaguing the US at the time.
There are more than 150 million European Starlings already settled on the continent. And that means only the Red-winged Blackbird outnumbers its population.
It’s not completely black as you’ll find shades of purple and green in that plumage. We’ve even seen a few spots of white, especially during winter.
The European Starling is a social bird. It will not attack any other species looking to feed or roost unless they are courting trouble. And because they’re so many in North America, they usually flock in thousands.
What we love most about this species is how it easily adapts to different environments. Ostensibly, they fully comprehend the school of natural selection. They’ll find a way to survive even if it means living next to an agricultural field, a livestock facility, a large city, or a garbage dumpsite.
|Weight:||1.5–1.8 oz (42–50 g)|
|Length:||7.5–8.7 in (19–22 cm)|
|Wingspan:||14.2 in (36 cm)|
The Brown-Headed Cowbird is an incredible species, but are brood parasites. Birds that are typically classified as brood parasites are the ones that don’t build their own nests.
They’ll look for nests built by other species, lay eggs in them, and then go their way. So, the responsibilities of incubation and feeding the hatchlings will be left to those other birds.
Some species are able to recognize the difference between their eggs and that of the Cowbird. However, they can’t do much, seeing as they lack the strength required to push them out of the nest. Some will abandon the nest—the Yellow Warbler being one of them—while others just pretend everything’s normal and do the work.
You might not see any issue with that practice, but researchers believe that form of parasitism is the reason why the songbird population in North America is on a drastic decline.
They are not monogamous at all. Genetic analysts have tested several of their females and established that they’ve been intimate with several males within a single season.
|Weight:||2.6–5.0 oz (74–142 g)|
|Length:||11.0–13.4 in (28–34 cm)|
|Wingspan:||14.2–18.1 in (36–46 cm)|
Did you know the number one threat to corn isn’t the crow, but the Common Grackle? We kid you not! These birds will eat your corn in whatever form, whether it’s ripening or just sprouting. And since they forage for food in large flocks, the damage left behind can be millions of dollars worth.
They also happen to be very intelligent and resourceful. Or how else can you explain their habit of following plows to trap mice and invertebrates? They’ll sometimes raid the American Robins’ nest and steal all their worms, and even go as far as killing other species for food, should they run out of options.
Grackles have perfected the art of “anting.” It’s a technique where they hunch over on the ground, spread their wings, and allow ants to crawl all over their bodies. They often do that to take advantage of the formic acid that’s normally secreted by those invertebrates. It’s that acid that helps them get rid of any parasite that has the potential of compromising their avian immune systems.
If the ants aren’t interested in them, they’ll look for limes, lemons, or walnut juice. Whatever produces enough acid to get the job done.
The Common Gackle will forage and roost as a flock. And the flock is welcoming to species of similar nature. When they are ready to nest, they’ll look for woodpecker holes or the nests that have been built by the Great Blue Heron or Osprey. They sometimes raise their young atop trees and in barns.
Fun fact: The oldest Common Grackle died at 23 years. Sadly, it was killed and eaten by a bird of prey in Minnesota.
|Weight:||1.5–1.8 oz (42–50 g)|
|Length:||7.5–8.7 in (19–22 cm)|
|Wingspan:||14.2 in (36 cm)|
In the 50s, the Bronzed Cowbird felt the need to extend its range. While we were busy encouraging more and more people to take on agriculture in Texas, they saw this as an opportunity to expand and build more homes northward. Their ranges have exponentially grown to a point where they are now overlapping that of the Brown-Headed Cowbird.
What are the effects of this change? The most obvious one has been competition for host nests. Yes, that’s right. The Bronzed Cowbird is also a brood parasite, and as such, likes to lay eggs in the nests built by other species. The only difference between it and the Brown-Headed Cowbird is that the latter prefers laying eggs in the nests of relatively smaller species.
It’s reported that songbirds are nowadays aware of these habits, so they’ll immediately attack the bird if it invades their territories.
|Weight:||24.3–57.3 oz (689–1,625 g)|
|Length:||22.1–27.2 in (56–69 cm)|
|Wingspan:||45.7–46.5 in (116–118 cm)|
This passerine is one of the largest in the world, as it can weigh approximately 3.6lbs! We have the Old World Ravens and the New World Ravens, and while researchers like treating them as one species, DNA sequencing has proven that there’s a significant difference between the two.
The Texan Ravens prefer breeding on cliffs or mountains. But the population that nests in Colorado has a different preference. You’re likely to find them in shrublands or deciduous woodlands. They’ll use vines, twigs, and branches as the exterior construction material, and grass or animal hair for the interiors.
The female usually lays 5 to 6 eggs per brood and does all the incubation. The eggs will hatch after 3 to 4 weeks, and the young blood will be ready to explore the world 7 weeks after hatching.
You should know Ravens are not the same as Crows. We know they look alike, but if you’re keen, you’ll notice the Ravens are not only bigger, but also have beaks that are curvier. Their bristles are noticeably longer, and if you check the throat feathers, you’ll realize that they are shaggier.
Developing the requisite identification skills needed to distinguish different bird species is quite easy if you’ve already mastered the observational techniques. And those techniques should be applied while taking into consideration the following concepts:
If you’re trying to identify the habitat of a particular species, don’t just focus on the geographic location. Also pay close attention to its immediate surroundings, as that’s what’s more important. Like humans, birds have a preference. So, some prefer living in forested areas, those that love the suburbs, grasslands, woodlands, you name them.
We’d like to emphasize two things here: the seasonal changes and the species’ sex. These two are the factors that largely influence these species’ plumage. It’s not common to find a species that has both genders sharing the same plumage colorations. From our observation, most bird species have males displaying plumages that are more colorful and brighter, in comparison to the females’.
According to ornithologists, this trait helps the males compete for the female’s attention during courtship. We’ve been told the females are usually more drawn to male birds that appear glossier, more colorful, and brighter.
Just don’t focus too much on those intraspecific traits and forget about the general plumage patterns. Remember, while some species are black from head to toe, others aren’t. For example, the Red-winged Blackbird has patches of yellow and red, while the Raven is completely black. Also, some will appear totally black from a distance, but present a different color when they get closer. A good example is the Common Grackle.
You have to read the bird. Study its interactions with other birds, and then observe its interaction with members of the same community. We have birds that won’t have an issue with any species, even if they feel like their personal space is being invaded. And then some wouldn’t even want a sister, brother, cousin, or any other family member, to hunt or play near their territory.
You also have to carefully listen to the calls and the sounds that they make. Those sounds are often very distinct, and hence, will immediately give away the identity of the bird. You’ll be able to hear the calls while they are courting, mating, playing, or defending their territories.
Their feeding behavior is something that you should look into as well. Some diets are primarily made of seeds and nothing else, while others have a little bit of everything. Ranging from grains, fruits, plants, worms, eggs, younglings, other birds, etcetera.
Lastly, we have breeding and migration. By now you obviously know that not all species in North America migrate. And those that do, only do so for the sake of survival. They’ll migrate to breed, escape the cold weather, or look for more sources of food.
If breeding is the causal factor, focus on the roles played by the individual gender. Some species have their females do much of the work while the males just lay there and relax. Others believe in a 50/50 partnership, where the males pick a suitable site and build the nests, while the females lay the eggs, feed the hatchlings, and protect them until they are ready to explore the world independently.
If we were to compare black birds with other species, we would say they tend to be relatively larger. But the size aspect won’t help you much if you don’t know anything about their tail structure.
Let’s compare the European Starling to the Boat-tailed Grackle. You’ll realize the Starling has a short tail made of dark feathers, and it appears stubby. The Grackle, contrastingly, comes with one that’s longer and V-shaped.
All these black birds are not just found in North America or Texas. They have relatives in Asia, Africa, and even Europe. Some are migratory, others are partially migratory. It all depends on the species in question, and the conditions of their respective habitats.
To top that off, nearly all of them have symbolism and meaning in different communities. For example, some people believe black as a color, represents dark magic, mystery, and death. As such, they view black birds as messengers of bad news.
Featured Image Credit: Agami Photo Agency, Shutterstock
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Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.
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