Aerial Ballet - Iowa Wildlife Federation

Aerial Ballet

Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.

3 Crack the Whip - Nov Grackles


Migrating Blackbirds Provide Choreographed Air Show


For those who relish the outdoors, the month of November is one of the busiest and most exciting times of the year – so busy and so exciting, in fact, that making a list of all the things to do would fill pages. One of the things I eagerly look forward to in November is observing the annual migration of blackbirds.  Yea, that’s right, I enjoy – no, I love – sitting and watching massive flocks of blackbirds.  In terms of sheer numbers, the autumn congregations are unrivaled.

The November duck blind is one of my favorite viewing points. The show begins at the crack of dawn as thousands upon thousands of roosted grackles take wing from the oak or cottonwood shrouded shorelines of lakes and marshes.  Individual flocks may stretch continuously for three or four miles; trying to guesstimate their numbers is far beyond my mathematical capability.  What makes the lengthy flocks especially fun to watch are the high speed choreographed gyrations the birds conduct on a frequent basis.  Included among my aerial ballet favorites are Crack the Whip, the Tornado, Roller Coaster and Figure-8 routines.  The reason I love to observe blackbirds from duck blinds is that when crossing wide expanses of open water, the displays always seem to become more frequent and extreme.

Tree stands are another good observation point; not so much for the viewing but for the incredible sound. I’ve sat on a crisp November morning –when the air was so still you could hear a pin drop – waiting for that big buck to make an appearance when, out of nowhere, thousands of passing blackbirds decided to descend on the timber.  In an instant, the leafless branches were completely refoiliated with clamoring grackles; the forest floor transformed into a foraging black carpet of birdlife.  The din is deafening until all of a sudden, the flock takes wing again and silence returns to the forest.

2 Migrating grackles

I’ve often wondered exactly who is in charge of these huge flocks. Who decides when and where to go, or which bird determines whether the thousands behind it will turn to the right or left.  Most importantly, which bird gives the signal that it’s time for another ‘Crack the Whip’?

1 common grackle


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