Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Random Bird: Blackbird

Kenn wrote this back in December: (Today, January 7, we're supposed to be boarding ship in Tierra del Fuego to head toward the Antarctic, and we set this post to be published in our absence.)

So who would call a bird simply "Blackbird?" The British. Look at bird books from England, especially older ones, and you’ll see bird names like Blackbird, Heron, Wren, Jay, Swallow, etc., as if there were only one bird in each of these groups. Those British sometimes act as if they had invented the English language!

Anyway, The Blackbird (which Americans often refer to as "Eurasian Blackbird") is not at all related to the blackbird family (Icteridae), a strictly New World group which includes our familiar Red-winged Blackbird as well as grackles, cowbirds, American orioles, meadowlarks, and others. In fact, the (Eurasian) Blackbird is a very close relative of the American Robin (which is not closely related to the European Robin ... Got that? There will be a quiz in the morning). The Blackbird is native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa, and has been introduced into Australia and New Zealand. There are a few records from eastern Canada, but there are some doubts about how those birds may have arrived there. The Blackbird shown above is one that we watched in Copenhagen, Denmark, in September 2005. Aside from the color of its feathers, it looked for all the world like an American Robin, and acted like one, too, perfectly at home in a tiny park in the big city.

Not only is this blackbird very widespread in the Old World, it’s also culturally important. "Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie" would have been this species. The Beatles' song "Blackbird," with the lines about "Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly," was referring to this species. But when it comes to the Wallace Stevens poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," the answer is unclear; Stevens was an American but some of his blackbirds seem to have a European tilt.

1 comment:

  1. Several years ago, I was ID-ing some ducks off the Maine coast for a non-birder. After pointing out Buffleheads, Surf Scoters, and Puffins, he pointed and said, "What're they?"

    My answer that they were Black Ducks was met with some distrust. "What, did they run out of names or was it getting late?"

    Sometimes it's the simplest names that cause the most consternation...