Many Kentuckians look forward to the annual oriole migration, an event that brings two species of flashy, sweet-singing birds to the state.
What you may not know is that orioles, despite being known for their bright orange feathers, are actually part of the blackbird family, known scientifically as the Icteridae.
Not All Black Birds are Blackbirds
You might expect that a family of blackbirds would be named for its black feathers, but when it comes to their scientific name, they’re actually not.
The name “Icterid” means “the jaundiced one,” which sounds none-too-flattering! It refers to the flashy yellow feathers that many members of the blackbird family also have.
In ancient Greece, it was believed that a yellow-feathered bird could cure jaundice and that folklore association made its way into the scientific name of this new world bird family.
In addition to these bright yellow feathers, many blackbirds have extremely colorful bodies, thanks to their natural iridescence. Their black wings can show flashes of many other colors, including ranges of blues, greens, and purples.
Blackbirds are good at finding trouble, whether with humans or each other. They scavenge food, expand into urban areas, and shoulder their way into bird feeders—they can be aggressive birds!
Blackbirds are abundant in Kentucky so you have lots of opportunities to check out these vibrant birds and their interesting behaviors. Let’s get to know them better!
- Length: 7.5 – 10.2 in (19 – 26 cm)
- Weight: 3.2 – 5.3 oz (90 – 150 g)
- Wingspan: 13.8 – 15.8 in (35 – 40 cm)
Color Pattern: Eastern Meadowlarks have a sunny yellow breast with a distinctive black v-marking at the chest. The rest of the body is pale brown with black markings.
The tail of Eastern Meadowlarks is brown with blackish barring, and white outer feathers that become noticeable during flight.
Eastern Meadowlarks may be a little more mysterious than your average blackbird. They’re not as common to see at bird feeders because they prefer grassy fields and exposed perches like treetops.
It’s also not easy to find an Eastern Meadowlark’s nest: these birds will walk back to their nests rather than fly.
Despite the “lark” in its name, the Eastern Meadowlark isn’t a member of the lark family, which is why it appears in this article with its fellow blackbirds.
- Length: 6.7 – 7.5 in (17 – 19 cm)
- Weight: 1.1 – 1.4 oz (30 – 40 g)
- Wingspan: 9.1 – 11.8 in (23 – 30 cm)
Color Pattern: The adult males have striking hot orange undersides, and a black hood, back, and wings. They have white wing bars and white streaking on the wings.
Adult females are olive to gray on their backs with a subdued yellow belly. They share the white wing bars and streaking of the males. Juveniles share the female coloration.
Baltimore Orioles migrate to Kentucky each spring and are especially abundant in North-central Kentucky.
These sweet-sounding birds also love all things sugary and seek out fruit and nectar. They build intricately woven nests that hang from the branches of trees like a pocket.
- Length: 5.9 – 7.1 in (15 – 18 cm)
- Weight: 0.6 – 1.0 oz (16 – 28 g)
- Wingspan: 9.8 in (25 cm)
Color Pattern: The adult male is black on top from hood to tail, with a deep chestnut-colored underside. There is a chestnut-colored patch on each wing, with white streaking along the wing feathers.
The adult females have an olive-to-yellow back with yellow breasts. Their wings are grayish and marked with two white wing bars; unlike the males, they have no black markings.
Juveniles are similar to females, but immature males have black markings on their faces.
Orchard Orioles are Kentucky’s only other species of oriole. They’re harder to bring to your feeders than Baltimore Orioles, but you might lure them with orange halves or sunflower seeds.
If you’re being visited by an Orchard Oriole, you might not realize it. These birds’ songs sound very similar to several other species, which can cause a case of mistaken identity.
Orchard Orioles don’t seem to mind though–they’re very easy-going amongst other orioles and birds of different species.
These birds are also social with each other, preferring to nest close together and often sharing the same tree, as long as conditions in the area are favorable.
- Length: 6.7 – 9.1 in (17 – 23 cm)
- Weight: 1.1 – 2.7 oz (32 – 77 g)
- Wingspan: 12.2 – 15.8 in (31 – 40 cm)
Color Pattern: The males are striking in appearance, with glossy black bodies, and red and yellow markings on the curve of each shoulder.
Females are dark brown overall, with clean white streaks, a pale breast, and often, a white eyebrow.
Red-Winged Blackbirds live in Kentucky year-round, but their numbers increase significantly during the spring migration in March and April.
During the breeding season, male Red-Winged Blackbirds become extremely territorial, defending a territory of as many as 15 female mates against all comers–whether bird, animal, or human.
Despite their efforts, anywhere from one-quarter to one-half of the chicks in a given nest will have been fathered by a different male than the one defending the territory.
- Length: 7.5 – 8.7 in (19 – 22 cm)
- Weight: 1.5 – 1.8 oz (42 – 50 g)
- Wingspan: 14.2 in (36 cm)
- Length: 6.3 – 7.9 in (16 – 20 cm)
- Weight: 1.3 – 1.6 oz (38 – 45 g)
- Wingspan: 12.6 – 15.0 in (32 – 38 cm)
Color Pattern: Males have glossy black feathers all over their bodies, and a deep brown head that can look black from a distance.
Females are entirely brown, but lighter on their heads and undersides. They have dark eyes and fine streaks on their bellies.
The most distinctive trait of Brown-Headed Cowbirds is that they are brood parasites: that is, they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. They then make their chicks someone else’s problem!
What’s really interesting, though, is that not all birds helplessly raise the Cowbirds’ chicks as their own. Some species have learned to recognize the intruder’s eggs and created defenses against them, such as puncturing the eggs or building a new nest.
- Length: 8.3 – 9.8 in (21 – 25 cm)
- Weight: 1.7 – 2.8 oz (47 – 80 g)
- Wingspan: 14.6 in (37 cm)
Color Pattern: The Rusty Blackbird is recognizable by the rusty feather edges that are visible on both the non-breeding males and the females. Both also have pale yellow eyes. Non-breeding males have buffy eyebrows.
Females have gray-brown bodies and dark feathers surrounding the eye that contrast with a pale brow.
Breeding males are a glossy black all over, with a greenish iridescent sheen.
These unique birds winter in flooded bottomland forest areas in the Mississippi River Valley and along the East Coast.
The Rusty Blackbird is in serious trouble. This bird’s numbers declined 85 to 95% over a span of 40 years–more than any other North American songbird.
Frustratingly, no one is certain why. Factors that could be contributing include habitat loss, mercury toxicity, pesticide runoff, and climate change causing wetlands to dry up.
The International Rusty Blackbird Working Group is studying these birds and trying to solve the troubling problem of their decline.
- Length: 8.3 – 9.8 in (21 – 25 cm)
- Weight: 2.1 – 3.0 oz (60 – 86 g)
- Wingspan: 14.6 in (37 cm)
- Length: 7.9 – 8.7 in (20 – 22 cm)
- Weight: 1.8 – 2.4 oz (50 – 67 g)
- Wingspan: 14.6 in (37 cm)
Color Pattern: Males are iridescent black that ranges from blues at the top of their head, down to greens lower on their body. They have striking yellow eyes.
Females are brown throughout, but darker on their tails and wings. They have dark eyes. Juveniles will look similar to the females, but with washed-out coloration.
The Brewer’s Blackbird is mostly found along the southern border of Kentucky.
Brewer’s Blackbirds are sometimes thought to be agricultural pests because they eat grains, but they’re actually really important for controlling populations of pest insects. They eat a variety of troublesome insects, including tent caterpillars, termites, and weevils.
- Length: 11.0 – 13.4 in (28 – 34 cm)
- Weight: 2.6 – 5.0 oz (74 – 142 g)
- Wingspan: 14.2 – 18.1 in (36 – 46 cm)
Color Pattern: Common Grackles seem to be simply black, but iridescence gives them a wide array of colors under the right light.
Males have glossy purple heads and bronzing all over their bodies. Females aren’t as iridescent as the males, but still have some of that bronzing and multicolored sheen.
Both adults have a light golden eye, but juveniles are born with a dark eye.
Common Grackles are intelligent, noisy birds that are known for their wide-ranging appetites and foraging skills.
These highly-social birds will form multi-species flocks in the winter with other types of blackbirds, sometimes including several million birds. They forage and roost together.
Blackbirds are a lively and fascinating group that will reward your birding efforts with lots of interesting observations. Kentucky offers many opportunities to enjoy these flashy birds, both during the breeding season and all through the year. Have fun!