From its mountains and lakes to its flora and fauna, the American west is full of beautiful and exciting things to see, and that extends to its birds.
This includes the blackbird family, which can sometimes be some of the most difficult birds to identify. Here’s a quick guide to the medium-sized blackbirds of Montana.
Before we get started, one quick note: Some of these birds are new world blackbirds, which make up the family Icteridae.
Birds like meadowlarks and orioles, while they wouldn’t initially be the birds that come to mind when you hear the term “blackbird,” do belong to that family as well.
Meanwhile, some birds that have darker wings like starlings and ravens belong to other families. For the purposes of this list, we’ll keep the focus primarily on the blackbird family (or Icteridae) that you may see in Montana.
- Scientific name: Agelaius phoeniceus
- Length: 6.7-9.1 inches (all bird length estimates via Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology)
If you’ve ever gone hiking or birdwatching through a marshy area anywhere in the lower 48, you’ve probably seen red-winged blackbirds or at least heard their recognizable songs fill the air.
In some northern regions, red-winged blackbirds can be seen forming large groups before their migration south, while other areas including some of southwestern Montana will have the blackbirds stay year-round.
They’re most easily found in marshy areas near water, but you may also see them in farm fields or meadows, especially if there’s a water source nearby like a lake or pond.
Male red-winged blackbirds are identifiable by their red shoulder patches. Females are a bit trickier to identify, as they’re dark brown color, which could be confused with other birds such as sparrows.
- Scientific name: Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus
- Length: 8.3-10.2 inches
Montana is smack-dab in the middle of the yellow-headed blackbird’s breeding range. This primarily western species’ range does extend as far east as Wisconsin and the Great Lakes shores of Michigan, but birdwatchers are more likely to see these beautiful blackbirds further west.
Male yellow-headed blackbirds have a colorful yellow patch on their heads and throat, with black bodies and a white patch on their wings.
Female and juvenile yellow-headed blackbirds aren’t quite as easy to pick out, with smaller and duller yellow colorations and a body that’s a dark brown color.
Perhaps the easiest way to identify a yellow-headed blackbird is to hear its song. It’s a harsh, grinding sound, unlike most other birds you’ll hear.
Like red-winged blackbirds, you’re most likely to see yellow-headed blackbirds amongst the reeds and foliage of marshlands, with the occasional spotting in nearby farm fields.
- Scientific name: Euphagus carolinus
- Length: 8.3-9.8 inches
Rusty blackbirds breed in northern Canada, but you might catch sight of one on their migrations through the state, whether they’re heading north or south.
Male breeding rusty blackbirds are black, while breeding females exhibit more of a gray color. The rusty blackbird will display a brown coloration in the fall.
Though not the only blackbird with yellow eyes, (see Brewer’s blackbird below), the rusty blackbird’s yellow eyes can certainly help narrow down the identification of these birds.
If you’re lucky enough to spot a rusty blackbird, it will likely be in a pasture or meadow near wetlands or marshes as these birds head up to their breeding grounds.
You can also consider yourself even luckier to see one these days, as rusty blackbird populations have fallen sharply in recent decades.
A 1999 study from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center found that the rusty blackbird population in North America had declined by about 90% in the three decades prior.
- Scientific name: Euphagus cyanocephalus
- Length: 7.9-8.7 inches
Rusty and Brewer’s blackbirds are closely related and look quite similar to one another. Brewer’s blackbirds are more common and widespread in Montana than rusty blackbirds.
During the breeding season, Brewer’s blackbirds can be seen in any part of Montana, and residents of western Montana may even see them all year.
Males have yellow eyes, while females have brown eyes. Males may exhibit a blue-ish to purple-ish sheen, while females are a more dull brown color.
Females are similar in color to female brown-headed cowbirds, though you may be able to tell a female Brewer’s blackbird by its longer tail and longer, thinner bill.
These birds are most common in open areas, seen foraging for insects in summer and seeds on the ground. You may spot them in parks, golf courses, meadows, grasslands, and lawns.
- Scientific name: Quiscalus quiscula
- Length: 11-13.4 inches
Montana’s common grackles don’t hang around all year, making their annual migration from the southeastern United States.
When they’re in the area, some backyard birders may consider these noisy, sometimes messy birds a nuisance, especially since they can monopolize a bird feeder and keep other birds away.
Grackles are bigger than the average blackbird on this list, with proportionately longer tails than their family members, but they’re smaller than large black birds like crows and ravens.
Males have shiny blue heads, and they can look even purple in the right lighting. Females’ heads are a less defined blue color.
Grackles can be seen pretty much anywhere within their range, from open fields and bird feeders in your backyard to marshes and other water sources. Their song is a loud, harsh note that’s almost electronic in nature.
- Scientific name: Molothrus after
- Length: 6.3-7.9 inches
As their name implies, brown-headed cowbirds are known for their brown heads, though that will only help you identify the males. Females are brown throughout their bodies. They look similar to female Brewer’s blackbirds, but with shorter, stubbier bills.
These birds are often seen looking for food on the ground or hanging around on farm fence posts.
You might also see them at your feeders, in a park, or on the golf course. Brown-headed cowbirds occupy all of Montana during the breeding season, heading south for the winter.
Brown-headed cowbirds are brood parasites, which may not win them any popularity contests amongst backyard birders.
Brood parasites lay their eggs in the nests of other species, relying on that other species to raise their young. This can have negative effects on the host species and its young.
- Scientific name: Dolichonyx oryzivorus
- Length: 5.9-8.3 inches
Male bobolinks are the only American bird with dark feathers below and lighter colors above, with white and gray wings and a tan back of the head and neck, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
If you see a breeding male, its large tan patch is unmistakable. Females and non-breeding males aren’t as easy to identify. Females and immature males have buffy feathers with dark brown streaks down their bodies.
Bobolinks are most common in hayfields, meadows, and farmlands. They aren’t as common as they once were, with their habitat on the decline.
A 2019 study in the journal Science, which reported the alarming statistic that bird populations as a whole had dropped 29 percent since 1970, found that grassland species like the Bobolink, Dickcissel, and Henslow’s sparrow saw population reductions of 53 percent since 1970.
Are you still struggling to identify a black bird you’ve seen in Montana?
Montana is full of partially black birds that may not have made this list. If you’re looking at something too big to be any of these birds, you could be looking at a crow or raven. Both make their homes in at least part of Montana.
Large turkey vultures are frequent sights soaring above the mountain skies during the summer months in search of food.
If you’re searching the trees for birds, you could also be looking for a woodpecker, as Montana is home to 10 species of woodpeckers, the majority of which are a mix of black and white.
European starlings are common across America since their introduction in the 1800s, while birds like orioles, warblers, towhees, and grosbeaks all contain some black coloration.