Early Arrivals

One of the early signs of spring I look for every year is the arrival of flocks of blackbirds.  Blackbirds (Family Icteridae) include Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and Brown-Headed Cowbirds, all of which are commonly seen in the Pennypack Preserve.  These three species tend to winter in the Southern US, although some do winter in Pennsylvania.  Therefore, they only need to make a fairly short migration to get back to our area.   For this reason, they are among the earliest migrating birds to return, typically appearing in late March.  Often they will migrate in mixed flocks of some combination of red-winged blackbirds, grackles, and cowbirds along with starlings.  The picture below shows a mixed group of red-winged blackbirds, female cowbirds, and a couple of incidental starlings.

Typically the males migrate first and set up breeding territories followed later by the females.  Therefore, it is not unusual to see only one gender of a particular species in a flock.  Other members of the Icterid family such as orioles and bobolinks winter in central or south America.  They have further to migrate and therefore arrive later in the spring.

In the Pennypack Preserve the best place to see grackles is near the Beaver Pond (formerly known as Crossroads Pond).  However, they may also be seen next to the creek, particularly near slower water.  This is one of a flock of grackles I saw on April 3 by the pond.  Some were perched in the trees, calling, but others were feeding.  Grackles are omnivorous and water-loving.  They are typically seen feeding in shallow water or at the waters edge for insects or vegetable matter.

I only saw male red-winged blackbirds yesterday.  The females (which resemble large sparrows) should arrive sometime later this month.  This blackbird was also singing near the pond, but others are commonly seen at the woods edge next to the meadows where they are often seen feeding.  Like grackles, they are omnivorous.

Blackbirds may not be as attractive as warblers and we don’t find their calls as appealing as those of other birds, but I always enjoy seeing them as an early sign of spring.


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