There are quite a few "black birds" that could show up around your yard or be seen flying overhead in East Brunswick; European starling, Common grackle, American crow, Brown-headed cowbird, Red-winged blackbird, Fish crow, Boat-tailed grackle, Turkey vulture, Black vulture and believe it or not, even the Common Raven. The first four are probably the most likely to actually be seen in a backyard, but Red-winged blackbirds are very common in the huge blackbird flocks now being seen around town at dusk. Anyone living near the landfill should also learn to separate Common crows from Fish crows, and Common grackles from Boat-tailed grackles, because Fish crows can be quite common in that area too and Boat-tailed grackles continue to expand their range and abundance in New Jersey. Turkey vultures are also very common around town as these huge black birds fly overhead looking for a tasty dead rotting meal. Occasionally Black vultures appear overhead too and can be separated from the more abundant and larger turkey vultures by their stubbier white-tipped wings and regular flapping. Both of these vultures were covered in a previous post (http://eastbrunswick.patch.com/blog_posts/vultures-natures-garbage-disposal). Dan Brill, a colleague of mine and a phenomenal birder also saw two ravens fly over Bordentown Avenue recently and has seen them at the landfill in the past as well.
All of these birds have fascinating aspects to their life histories, but the European starling also has an interesting human-related history. Like the House sparrow, it was introduced from Europe starting sometime in the mid-19th century. More may have been written about the introduction of this species to the United States then just about any other bird. An early article in the Wilson Bulletin describes its appearance in Essex County, N.J., and subsequent spread in the county in the first years of the 20th century (http://www.jstor.org/stable/4154388) and another provides a detailed overview of its rapid spread in New Jersey and the northeast through 1928 (http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/biogeog/COOK1928.htm). While the spread of exotic animals is very interesting from an ecological perspective, the starling should be the poster child for a cautionary tale about messing with nature. The circumstances surrounding its introduction are nothing less than fascinating.
The success of the European starling in the United States is generally attributed to the American Acclimatization Society, an unusual New York City organization, founded by wealthy New York residents, that was devoted to bringing European species of plants and animals to the United States. The group apparently introduced the starling in an effort to bring all the birds named in Shakespeare's plays to the United States (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Acclimatization_Society).
Many black birds have a tendency to flock together and this is the time of the year when huge flocks of starlings, grackles, Red-winged blackbirds, cowbirds and even occasionally crows can be seen around town. The number of birds and size of these flocks is really awesome and tens of thousands of birds is not unusual. The noise from these huge flocks is often deafening. These flocks are often observed at dusk as the birds come together from widely scattered daytime feeding areas before heading to overnight roosts. These nighttime roosts are often in woods and marshes. The birds in the roosts can actually change the composition of the vegetation by dispersing seeds and by the impact of their huge amount of defecation. I published a paper on this in the Northeastern Naturalist that might be of interest (http://www.jstor.org/pss/3858320).
Counting birds in big flocks is challenging, but if you are lucky enough to have one come over your house during the Great Backyard Bird Count, here are some tips on how to do it: http://ebird.org/content/ebird/news/bird-counting-201
An excellent reference to the Birds of Middlesex County was prepared by the Edison Wetlands Association. This guide includes information on places to bird and the seasonal occurrence of birds in our area. It can be found online at http://www.leoraw.com/hpenv/data/BirdsofMiddlesexCounty.pdf. A list of the 40 Most Common Birds in Middlesex County was also compiled from various sources by the truly excellent Nature Blog "A DC Birding Blog" (http://dendroica.blogspot.com/2008/06/most-common-birds-in-middlesex-county.html). If you haven't visited this blog, what are you waiting for?
For more information on all of our "black birds" visit the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website at http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/search/ac
Use the Friends Online Guide to East Brunswick Parks to find places to explore and to look for all of our black birds. The Guide is available at: http://www.friendsebec.com/ebparks.htm.