Cori Brown: The Viking birds are back in town

Three grackles eye up each other as they gulp down bird seed.
Three grackles eye up each other as they gulp down bird seed.(Cori Brown photo)

There is so much to look forward to in the spring — countless shades of green, singing birds, insects and frogs, and flowers everywhere. With all this beauty surrounding us, marauders are in our midst. Perhaps you have seen them. I call them the Viking birds of spring.

I am referring to the invasion of blue jays, starlings, red-wing blackbirds and grackles. These raiders are insatiable, plundering and pilfering feeders en masse, especially now.


But wait a minute, aren’t the obnoxious blue jays here year-round? Believe it or not, about 20% of blue jays migrate. The rest of them stick around here all year, not unlike a bad dream.

Personally, I find the blue jays to be the worst of the worst. Though they are quite handsome birds (typically so are Vikings in Hollywood movies) they are raucous, belligerent, and willing to pick a fight with almost anyone else.

Perhaps I am contributing to their delinquency by feeding birds all year long. This is because of my desire to see the much nicer song birds who seem to have better manners (think Rose-breasted grosbeaks and Indigo buntings).

It’s sheer numbers though that put blue jays on wrong side of the tracks for me. Once they know the Brown Diner is open for business (I take my feeders down every night because of raccoons and put them back up in the morning), it’s a free for all. It only takes one to send out the word that it’s chow time and soon the yard is full of them, sometimes as many as 10-15 at a time.

There’s no mistaking this mature red-winged blackbird with his classic red shoulder patches.
There’s no mistaking this mature red-winged blackbird with his classic red shoulder patches.(Blackbird)

That’s when they could all use a class on conflict resolution. Instead of patiently taking turns at the six feeders, they scream, kick and flap their wings at each other and everybody else in a blustery show of force. It’s not uncommon for four or five to be waiting in the wings (pun intended) while others are duking it out on the feeders. This goes on all day long.

Meanwhile, the lovely starlings are back in full force, too (they migrate south from Canada) as they plot their strategy to get their fair share of the sunflower seed pie. Their method seems to involve hit and run maneuvers. They show up in even greater numbers at the feeders than the blue jays (thirty to forty at a time is not unusual), but unlike the jays, they noisily swoop in, vacuum up what they can, and are off quickly to bother someone else. Any sudden movement or just a loud rap on the window usually scares them off.

I hate to admit it but I am intrigued by their plumage, especially during breeding season. Their iridescent green and purple feathers are a beautiful contrast to their brightly colored yellow beaks. Still, they remind me of the movie The Birds if you are caught in the midst of them. Their rowdy calls and the sound of hundreds of beating wings can be quite intimidating. On the other hand, they are known for their murmurings (what looks like synchronized swimming in the sky), which can be quite spectacular. If you’ve never seen one, check out this link from National Geographic (video.nationalgeographic.com/video/short-film-showcase/00000158-457d-d0be-a1dc-4f7f8e650000).

Grackles and red-wing blackbirds round out the marauding gangs. Grackles are blackbirds, too, but they are larger and leaner looking than their red-wing cousins. Of the four gangs, the grackles are the least aggressive in my opinion. They can still be a nuisance, but come in lesser numbers and do not seem to fuss with each other or other birds as much. They are, however, quite good at gobbling down large quantities of seeds. This is a definite shortcoming when it comes to my wallet, not to mention those of farmers whose corn crops they also target.


What is interesting is their courtship mode. When they are trying to impress the ladies, they fluff and puff their feathers to look much bigger than their rivals. It’s a trait they share with the red-wings.

This blue jay’s demure look belies a warrior beneath.
This blue jay’s demure look belies a warrior beneath.(Cori Brown photo)

They also have maniacal bright yellow eyes. In a low-down crouch mode, they look like they are possessed and ready to attack! Imagine what their brethren must think when they see those mean looking eyes.

Last spring’s red-wing population must have exploded because at times it feels like the entire population lives across the road in the swamp. I have never heard nor seen so many of these birds as I have this year. They showed up a few months ago and have been going non-stop at the feeders ever since.

They are second only to the blue jays in their frequent flyer visits to the feeders. In their fluff and puff state the mature males are quite showy with their brilliant red shoulder patches. They are good cleanup hitters, too, as they frequently pick up leftovers strewn on the ground by the blue jays.

While all of these birds are great at raiding the feeders, bullying other birds, and causing general chaos, every one of them has levelers to keep them in check. They’re called hawks. The Cooper’s hawk in particular has ramped up his activities here and at my neighbors. So look out all you Viking birds — I’m not the only one watching you!