The general name “blackbirds” is given to perching birds of the family Icteridae. These are medium-sized birds of open habitats or forest edges, which are often of shiny or dull black plumage; some also have other melanin-based colours such as orange or yellow. Many have ringing, distinctive calls as they announce their territories. They feed on insects, fruits and seeds. This New World family contains approximately 103 species, of which 23 are found in North America. Eleven species are known from Saskatchewan, all of which are migratory. One of the species is the only Saskatchewan songbird that is a nest parasite, i.e., it lays its eggs in the nest of other species, which then raise the young. The brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) parasitizes songbirds such as warblers; the young cowbirds usually out-compete the young of the host species and cause their death. A bird of the grasslands at the time of the great American bison herds, cowbirds have expanded north into the southern regions of the boreal forest.
Two of the species nest mainly in marshy vegetation. The red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is very common in the marshes and larger sloughs of the southern half of the province, and is found nesting in lower numbers up to the northern border. Populations of this species can be very large, causing considerable impact on the cultivated areas in which they feed. The yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) is more limited in its distribution, being more likely to use wetlands with deeper water in the southern half of the province.
Other species, such as the bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), are found in grainfields and grasslands. Brewer’s blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus) nests in open grasslands country, but is also willing to make use of the shrubby vegetation of townsites. The Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) is a common sight of the summer grasslands as it gives its cheery song from a fence post or small shrub; the bright yellow belly and black cravat are obvious on a frontal view, but the ground-nesting bird disappears when it turns its camouflaged brown-striped back. The rusty blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) and common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) both nest in the boggy areas of the middle southern boreal region; the grackle is also a successful breeder in the settled sites of the agricultural grasslands.
Three species of the colourful orange and black orioles nest here. The most common is the Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), whose flute-like song is heard in woodlots and wooded town sites in the southern half of the province. There are a few records, mostly from the southwestern corner, of Bullock’s oriole (I. bullocki), the western counterpart of the Baltimore oriole. The first record of the orchard oriole (I. spurius), in 1972, indicated the spread of this eastern woodland species into the province. Since then, it has been recorded and found breeding, usually in the southeast, but as far north and west as Saskatoon and the Cypress Hills.