A swarm of black-colored birds in Richmond Hill. Photo: Ambar Castillo

It was late morning just after Thanksgiving when I looked up at the sky and gave thanks this was modern-day Queens, not Capitola, California, in August of 1961. Back then, the seaside town had partly inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s horror-thriller “The Birds” after large flocks of sooty shearwaters roused residents by thudding their bodies against rooftops and parked cars. Around the same time, ranchers had reportedly found crows and ravens plucking the eyes out of newborn lambs and eating them. The havoc had happened in Bodega and Bodega Bay, other seaside towns where Hitchcock happened to be filming. 

Just two blocks from the closest bodega in my Richmond Hill neighborhood, the scene was far more innocuous but no less creepy. My mami and I were heading home after our daily trek through Forest Park, where our golden Shepherd, Gameboy, is the wildest provocateur of any wildlife encounters we’d had. We had just turned onto 106th Street off Park Lane South when we saw a swarm of black-colored birds — hundreds of them — in the sky, trees and power lines, and also perched en masse on rooftops and lawns and on sidewalks across the street. 

As far as I could see, there was no bird food, nothing driving them to own the streets I had passed by for decades growing up. In all that time, my family and I hadn’t seen a flock one-fifth its size; even then, the birds were house sparrows, nothing like the dark creatures that swooped down and zipped back up above us. 

A blackbird by any other name would look as creepy

I didn’t take them for simple blackbirds. I’m not certain what made me so sure; maybe, like many native New Yorkers, the extent of my expertise around black feathered bodies was not real-world exposure but a lot of Hollywood, and a little of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” There was, too, the systemic legacy of racist-sounding superstitions around dark creatures — from the black cats demonized by the Catholic Church as early as the 13th century to the bats villainized in popular culture long before the Covid-19 epidemic. 

Black-colored birds in particular are portrayed as symbols of sin or harbingers of doom in mythology and religions across the world. (It doesn’t take much imagination to guess how “Jim Crow” got its name.) Ecological centers have even linked the dramatic and largely unnoticed decline of blackbirds in North America to this prejudice.   

It was a short scene: the diving, pecking creatures took over just a few blocks. But in Gameboy’s quiet stare — so unlike his usual bullying behavior towards birds, the pouncing at pigeons and sparrows who dared to feed off the ground he thought he owned — I read something ominous. 

Later, from the safety of my work desk, I read the truth. 

No lawns or porches were spared by the conference of blackbirds in this multi-block radius. Photo: Ambar Castillo

The conference of the blackbirds

Fascinated by the super-flock, I had gone down my deepest rabbit hole over birds to date. I had crowdsourced from the people in my life: siblings and their spouses over for Thanksgiving dinner, my closest friends over the phone. Either ravens or crows, they’d agreed. A murder of crows, I concluded, and not just because “murder” sans death sounds dope: ravens, it turns out, travel solo or in pairs, while crows coast in larger groups. Snug in my deduction skills but going for the validation cherry on top, I consulted a couple ornithologists, sharing pictures and a video. 

Their responses were swift bubble-breakers: “Those are not crows, they are common grackles,” said Kevin J. McGowan, a crow expert at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, via email.  

“These look like common grackles to me, not crows. Tails too long, birds too small,” wrote John M. Marzluff, a professor at the University of Washington who focuses primarily on corvids (ravens, jays and, yes, crows). 

Too late I remembered a detail my prejudice had blocked out: the sounds of those birds were not the iconic caws of crows, but chirps.  

A third, more detailed reminder of how wrong I was came from the American Museum of Natural History’s friendly communications staffer: “I checked in with one of our ornithologists and he says those are common grackles. He says there are large flocks of them that gather in NYC during winter to eat acorns, mostly in parks and cemeteries, but they will go into built-up areas if there are oaks around.”    

The expert was Paul R. Sweet, a Brooklyn resident who first gravitated towards bird-watching as a teen in the U.K: “It gets you out into nature, and it’s got the hunting aspect to it,” he explained. “You’re out there looking for things and trying to identify them and to document. And it’s a little bit competitive as well with your friends.” 

It was tough to imagine ever being competitive about birding with my own friends, when they all knew about my meager powers of observation whenever animals were in the picture. When I told a friend about the case of mistaken avian identity, he reminded me I had seen the grackle before, last year, in Costa Rica. 

After “Crowgate,” I happened upon a secondhand copy of National Geographic’s Birding Essentials at The Austin Book Shop on Jamaica Avenue. There, etched in the second chapter, was the sting of my mediocrity:  “Everyone has seen or heard birds. But not many people look at birds closely or even notice them regularly. Even fewer go searching for them or try to put a name to them. That’s what birders do.”    

Paul R. Sweet. Photo courtesy of Paul R. Sweet

Misunderstanding the common grackle

Sweet, who is a collection manager at the AMNH ​​department of ornithology, has worked at the museum for 32 years. Throughout his tenure, one of the most common misconceptions he has heard is the one I brought up, he says. 

“People think that grackles are crows,” Sweet said. “They’re really not crows, they’re not related to crows, they’re members of the New World blackbirds family, the same family as orioles and red-winged blackbirds.”

He brought up another difference, other than size, I’d failed to catch during the Hitchcock shock.

“If you look at the grackles close up, they’re not really black,” Sweet noted. “They’re actually like this iridescent purplish, greenish, bluish color, actually quite beautiful.”

When I looked back at the photos, I saw how right he was. When you only know the names of two or three kinds of black-looking birds, it’s hard to see past your preconceptions. 

And, though the sheer volume was an uncommon sight on our streets, it was less so than I thought. Grackles breed in New York City in small numbers in some of the parks, Sweet explained. In the wintertime, “you get these giant flocks that kind of roam around.” 

“We’ve just never seen a flock that big in a residential area,” I said, trying to preserve what was left of my dignity. But I’d overlooked those homes’ proximity to Forest Park; birds, especially ones known to be territorial, wouldn’t exactly see rooftops as a “keep out” sign. It was especially unlikely if the streets in question were lined with oak trees.

“If you go up to Prospect Park, or Greenwood Cemetery, or some of the other cemeteries on the Queens-Brooklyn border, like near Ridgewood-Bushwick area, you often see big flocks of grackles in the winter,” he said, adding he will sometimes see about 200 outside his office in Central Park, flying around and foraging.  

And if you look more closely, you’ll see “they have a special way of eating acorns,” he explained. Inside their beak, on the roof of their bill, is a hard keel that cuts into the acorn and allows them to saw open acorns and access the edible part often unseen.  

Grackle in Costa Rica, on a journalism fellowship trip Ambar Castillo took in 2023. Photo courtesy of Ambar Castillo

Taking stock after the flock

That conversation, the ensuing deep dive into common crackles — and learning I had been unwittingly spreading misinformation about the murder of crows near my home — was a wake-up call. It all drove me to want to be a better non-birder; to not take blackbirds or oak trees for granted, to poke holes at my city-girl excuses for not paying better attention to the natural world around me.   

I asked my colleague Daniel Laplaza, self-proclaimed “level one” birder, for tips. More than advice on beginner birding books (Birds of New York and Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City) or beginner binoculars (Celestron Nature DX 8×42), it further fueled a reckoning of how much I had left to learn.

“I was trying to be present with the world around me, especially in New York where there’s just a lot,” he said. “You have to be present for it because the birds are flying, they’re fleeting. Your mind has this habit to lump in things that it sees all the time. But things around you are there with purpose, and without taking a moment to stop, to listen and to look at what is around you, you’ll miss it completely.”

A few days ago, on one of my Forest Park walks, I was busy working on being present with something other than my dog and the terrain, when I overheard a conversation. From what I gathered, a man, maybe in his 60s, had stopped to ask what a younger man on the trail was up to. While they chatted, I kept my distance, focused on keeping my hyperactive Gameboy away from the quieter beagle mix between the older man’s legs. 

“Happy bird watching!” the older man at last called out as they parted ways. 

My reaction delayed, I quickened the pace. I meant to catch up to the guy and ask what bird he had his eye on, to see if I could be on the lookout myself. But I hadn’t been present earlier, and his legs were long, his steps brisk. When Gameboy and I stopped and looked ahead, he was gone. He had already crossed, literally, onto the other side of the tracks, the other side of the divide between non-birders and birders, between creatures common and uncommon. 

A possible raptor at Kissena Park spotted on Dec. 30. Photo: Ambar Castillo 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve trekked to Marine Park for a NYC Parks-hosted winter bird-watching event to see next to nothing but ducks (just my luck and lack of avian vision, not a sign of the level of bird diversity out there). I’ve walked Kissena Park with other urban park rangers and curious New York residents to spot swans (who some rangers love to hate), cackling geese, northern shovelers, blue jays and what the group guessed was some raptor. There, I also saw what looked like blackbirds — but this time, I asked an expert first. He looked up at the gray sky. 

“They could be crows,” he said. 

***

How to get started on your own birding journey or share it with others:

  • Break into the birding world around you with the NYC Parks’ urban rangers and local birders here and here.
  • Invite others into your birding adventure through the NYC chapter of the Audubon Society here — or others, including women, LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC-centered ones — like the Feminist Bird Club and Latino Outdoors NYC and Outdoor Afro NYChere
  • Record your adventures in birding — and find new birds — at the eBird app here
  • Discover one of the largest collections of bird specimens in the world in our own backyard. Visit the American Museum of Natural History’s department of ornithology. 

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3 Comments

  1. Love the story, Living in Nassau County near Hempstead Lake Park I see VERY LARGE flocks of black birds all the time which I thought was a Murder of Crows. Thanks for clarifying what they really are. Sometimes it looks like a scene from “The Birds”.

  2. Love this article! I love nature, but rarely have time to enjoy it. Didn’t realize that the entire time I was seeing these giant flocks of birds, they weren’t crows. I guess crows aren’t as social as I thought 🤔

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