Four and Twenty Black Birds

They are back! Those black and wavy lines that appear in the sky every morning and every evening this time of the year, as the many species of blackbirds band together to make the trek from the swamps and marshes to the cornfields and hayfields and back again each day.

The Boattail Grackles, with their long feathery tails, used like a tiller on a boat to steer them, as they bob up and down in their flight.  And then there are the smaller Cowbirds, with their brown and bronze heads, furiously beating their shorter wings trying to keep up with their larger companions.  Next we have the Starlings, zipping along in almost a straight line, their dark feathers speckled in white. And not to forget the beautiful Redwing Blackbirds, their bright shoulder patches of red glistening in the morning sun and their wonderful singing voices that brighten the marshes in the evening with a their distinctive tunes.

They have been at this for hundreds of years, ever since farmers gave them fields of grain and the insects that prey on their crops. They spend their nights roosting in trees that line the swamps and waterways,  recovering from their foraging many miles away  in the uplands.  Each morning an unseen signal is given by some pre-selected group and the journey begins once more to the fields and farms that are miles from their bedrooms.

A few of the flocks are made up of one kind of blackbird but most are a conglomeration of four or five different species sharing the trip.  They assemble, thousands at a time, in what looks like a long black cloud . The cloud seems to go up and down as it moves forward, following the shape of the earth on their journey to the uplands. Occasionally, another unseen signal will tell them to take a break and the trees in that area will turn black from the resting birds. Then suddenly, it is off again and the trip resumes.

They spend the day in the fields eating some of the farmers crops and grains but mostly munching on the insects that are attacking the crops. The flocks move from one spot to another, like a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking up all in their path. Then suddenly, allowing themselves enough time to arrive at the roosts by dusk, the flocks begin their bobbing flight back to the lowlands.

Now we get to the title of this bird tale . You do remember, I am sure, the old English nursery rhyme  “Sing a Song of Sixpence”. Now in this case the birds never sang when the pie was opened and there was no king. We did “way-lay” enough of them every once in a while as they passed over the farm for my mother to make a potpie. We would stand at the northern edge of the farm, near the barn, and as the flocks would pass over following the contour of the land, they swoop down lower and wingtip-to-wingtip they would make almost a solid target.

It was not always four and twenty blackbirds that we bagged but whatever my father or I were able to pluck from the sky with our single barrel 12 gauge Western Field shotgun.  Back on the farm, our blasts from the shotgun went unnoticed but after we moved to Bradshaw Road the bird pies were few and far between. We were next to the church and neighbors were funny about buckshot raining down on their heads.

In those days of scarcity in the 30’s,  meat was meat and even though the breast on that bird was small, about two dozen of them being good enough for the king, were adequate for the  four Langrehrs.  We just skinned them, picked out any shot that we found and Mom soaked them in salt water over night. This removes the blood and it turns out to be surprisingly white meat.

Fill a baking dish with the breasts and available potatoes and other vegetables and seasonings, cover the whole thing with a crust and after baking you have that dainty dish to set before the king.  

Today, we might hesitate to dine on something as mundane as a blackbird but “Necessity Being the Mother of Invention”,  {thought to have been coined by Plato},  you do what you have to do..

However,  if the truth be known, back in the days of  Kings and Queens, Court Jesters and things, Blackbirds and song birds were considered a delicacy and a Blackbird Pie would have been a Royal Dish. 

A couple of other points I would like to make though, we had not built our counting house yet, there was no bread and honey for the queen and the maid was off for the day so the blackbird was cheated out of a nose.

Don Langrehr

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2 Responses to Four and Twenty Black Birds

  1. labrx99 says:

    Interesting reading, I had no idea those birds could actually be eaten for dinner!!

  2. Robin says:

    They sound yummy! Must be an interesting taste from eating all of those insects ; )
    Great reading, as usual.

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