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Icterids. Personally, I love 'em.  But what the hell kind of name is that?

srsly, wtf?

I started writing about blackbirds, and then I veered into writing about a few of their cousins and pretty soon it was all the icterids, and then I got interested in the origin of the name... and here we are.  Per Wikipedia (which is never wrong as far as I know),

The name, meaning "jaundiced ones" (from the prominent yellow feathers of many species) comes from the Ancient Greek ikteros, through the Latin ictericus. This group includes the New World blackbirds, New World orioles, the Bobolink, meadowlarks, grackles, cowbirds, oropendolas and caciques.
Okay, they say yellow but I know orange when I see it.

The name makes perfect sense, but I wouldn't have been the least bit surprised if it meant something like birds who live in marshes, or grasslands, because so many of them do.  Or maybe it could have translated as birds with really pointy beaks, because that sure describes most of them, too.  

Icterids, in a place that might also appeal to an ichthyologist.

Winter birding here means a lot of Central Valley wetlands and coastal marshes, and that means lots of blackbirds.  It also means city parks and my backyard, which means more blackbirds (but not lots).


Out here in the west, one of the most common is the Brewer's Blackbird.  I still remember an Audubon trip of 20+ years ago, when an Eastern birder joined our group and said he was excited to have his first lifer of the trip on the way to our meeting point - a Brewer's Blackbird.  Someone said "oh, you must have stopped at Safeway on your way here."  Yup.  Definitely a bird at home in parking lots and city parks, but also in open fields and wetlands.  And they're beautiful, elegant little birds.  Count me as a fan.  Yet more proof that common does not equal boring in the bird world.


Red-winged Blackbirds are found across the country. Unlike so many birds, their name is absolutely, perfectly descriptive - it's a black bird with red wings.  Bingo.  Most of them have a narrow band of yellow at the edge of the red, which can be hard to see sometimes.  Here in California, there is also a slightly different form that lacks the yellow band (see photo above).  And just to make things complicated, we also have a redwing with a white edge.  Except those aren't redwings, they're Tri-colored Blackbirds (back to the typical confusing bird names).


Tri-colored (aka Trikes) look a lot like redwings at first glance.  Sometimes they show just a sliver of the wing patch, so all you'll see is the white edge, like the bird above.  But most of the time you'll see the red.  A lot of times you can't tell if you're seeing red with a white edge or red with a yellow edge or if it's just glare or what.  But if they start vocalizing, there is no mistaking them.

yhbl trbl_5033
Yellow-headed Blackbirds hanging out with Trikes

And the Bananaheads... Yellow-headed Blackbirds, who hang out more in the middle of the continent, but occasionally make it out to the coasts.  Beautiful, striking birds, who sound like a bandsaw on steel.  Like the other blackbirds, they like marshes and fields.  They always brighten a day.

Rusty - I'm counting on you folks east of the Rockies here.  The only one I've ever seen was a mega-rarity that involved large numbers of bay area birders wandering around th parking lot of a hardware megastore looking for the bird.  We must have struck the shoppers as deranged, but by god we got our tick.  Update:  Thanks to burnt out for reminding me that Rusty Blackbirds are in trouble.  You can help by joining in surveys - more info in the linked diary.

Starlings can be easily confused with blackbirds when they're not in their speckled plumage, especially since they often flock together.  ("Some of my best friends are black-birds.")  The giveaway is in the tail - blackbirds tend to have long slender tails, but starlings have a short little stub of a tail.  Can be hard to see in flight, but usually pretty easy to discern on perched birds.

Great-tailed Grackles, male at left, female on right.

Similar in appearance (and vocal elegance) to the blackbirds are the grackles.  The Common Grackle is anything but common in the west - I've seen exactly one here - so I'm hoping you easterners might have photos. One that's not common in our area but seems to be increasing is the Great-tailed Grackle.  The pair above were photographed at the Salton Sea, but we do have a smattering of them in the Bay Area. As with blackbirds, males are glossy/iridescent black but the females are a more cryptic brown color.  There is also the Boat-tailed Grackle in the southeast.

bhco wcsp_0165
White-crowned Sparrow feeding Brown-headed Cowbird chick at Tuolumne Meadows.

Then there are the cowbirds.  The most widespread of them, the Brown-headed Cowbird, ranges across the country; two others (Shiny and Bronzed) range along the southern borders.  Cowbirds are brood parasites - they lay their eggs in other birds' nests.  This may be an adaptation to follow herds of cattle (or buffalo) for food, as they could not afford to stay in place to raise a brood when the herds moved on.  The cowbird chicks generally hatch and grow faster, and are often larger, than the chicks of host species, which lets them outcompete for food.  Most of the time it is problematic to individual birds but not to species as a whole.  However, in the case of the critically endangered Kirtland's Warbler, they had to put cowbird management plans into place to help the birds come back.

Western Meadowlark, making me happy by singing on a cold grey day.

As the cowbirds' name suggests, they're birds of open grassland.  Not all the birds out there need to become parasites to get by.  The meadowlarks - Eastern and Western - live in meadows, yes, but also agricultural lands and prairies.  They have a reverse mullet thing going on with their plumage, business on the back and a party in the front.  The streaky beige-y brown backs conceal them well in the grass when a harrier is passing over, but when it's time to get up on a perch and sing for a mate, that yellow front is a beacon.

Another grassland bird from the other side of the mountains is the Bobolink, who has a nickname of "Skunk Blackbird", for their black bodies with a big white patch down the back.  (They also have a patch of yellow on the back of their heads.)  No pix, alas.

buor vert_2920
This is a Bullock's Oriole, the western counterpart to the Baltimore Oriole

The last big group of icterids in the US are the orioles.  (Like blackbirds, they share their name with Old World species that are unrelated.)  The orioles are the ones who really earn the family name - they feature some really brilliant yellows and oranges in their plumage.  That guy in the intro is a Bullock's Oriole, known as Northern Oriole (along with Baltimore Oriole) when I started birding and now restored to separate species status.


Okay, back to that whole bird-naming thing.  Look at the Bullock's Oriole up there, and then look at the bird above.  Which one looks like it ought to be the Hooded Oriole?  Anyway, it's a gorgeous bird even if they named it wrong.  Their vocalizations are not harsh like blackbirds, nor melodious like meadowlarks; rather they have a cheerful chatter that you will often hear before you see the bird.  Pretty hard to believe that something that bright could be so hard to spot, so I'm grateful that they can be so vocal.

There are another half-dozen species of orioles in the US, each one equally brilliant and beautiful.  Besides their amazing colors, they also distinguish themselves by building very cool hanging nests.  When you look at these intricate, delicate, strong structures, it's pretty amazing to think about what goes into constructing them.  

Even the female orioles are colorful

In Central and South America, there are two more families of icterids, the oropendulas and the caciques.  Both of them also build hanging nests as well; I remember the oropendula nests hanging above rivers in Peru... truly and amazing sight.  

Okay, this was going to be a quickly dashed off diary but I got carried away.  I hope you can see why.

Originally posted to lineatus on Sun Feb 23, 2014 at 06:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Birds and Birdwatching.

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