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14 Small Black Birds in Massachusetts

Small Black Birds in Massachusetts
Dark-eyed Junco in Suffolk, Massachusetts: Photo by Ryan Schain

Introduction

Massachusetts provides prime habitat for a diverse array of diminutive black and dark-hued avian gems. From tiny swifts darting overhead to streaky woodpeckers tapping on trees, these species may be small in stature but their behaviors and songs bring character to backyards and natural areas across the state. Read on to learn about some of the most popular small black birds in Massachusetts.

Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica)

  • Features: Cigar-shaped silhouette in flight. Dark coloration with a slightly paler throat. Long, slender curved wings with rigid shallow flapping. Tiny feet that can cling to vertical surfaces.
  • Locations: Forages widely over fields, rivers, and towns in Massachusetts. Nests and roosts communally in chimneys and hollow trees. 
  • Fun Fact: An aerial insectivore, catching flies, mosquitoes, and other insects exclusively on the wing.

Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia)

  • Features: Boldly striped black and white pattern on face, throat, breast, and back. Thin pointed bill for probing bark crevices. Pinkish legs. Constantly fans tail.
  • Locations: Found in mature deciduous and mixed forests across Massachusetts.
  • Fun Fact: Forages by creeping along branches unlike most warblers. Song sounds like a squeaky wheel

Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe

  • Features: A medium-sized songbird with blackish-gray upperparts and a pale buff belly. It frequently pumps its tail downward. The head is flat with a short bill and round white eyering. It is often seen flycatching insects from low perches.
  • Locations: Found near barns, bridges, and structures across Massachusetts. Often returns to the same nest site each year.
  • Fun Fact: One of the earliest spring migrants, arriving before most other flycatchers and insect-eating birds.

American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)

  • Features: This warbler has jet black plumage on the upperparts that contrasts with large orange patches on wings and tail. The tail is often fanned out. Females are grayer overall with duller orange patches. 
  • Locations: Breeds in deciduous and mixed forests across Massachusetts. Winters in Central America and the Caribbean.
  • Fun Fact: Spreads its tail and flashes the orange patches to startle insects into flight while foraging.

Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens

  • Features: This small woodpecker has black and white barred pattern on its back. Males have a bold red patch on the back of the head. They have a short straight black bill. About 6 inches in length.
  • Locations: These small black birds in Massachusetts are found year-round in woodlands across Massachusetts. Frequents backyard feeders. 
  • Fun Fact: Male and female downies can be identified by the presence or absence of the red patch on the nape.

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

  • Features: These small sparrows have dark gray heads and backs with a lighter underside. Females are brownish overall. The white outer tail feathers flash during flight. The conical bill is yellow with a dark upper mandible. 
  • Locations: These small black birds in Massachusetts are found in woods, yards, and brushy areas. Winters in the state then migrates north to breed.
  • Fun Fact: Species name “hyemalis” means “of the winter” referring to their abundance in winter conditions.

Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris

  • Features: A stocky songbird with glossy black plumage that has an iridescent sheen up close. The narrow pointed bill is yellow during breeding season and dark in winter. Wings appear triangular in flight.
  • Locations: These small black birds in Massachusetts are found in a variety of urban and rural habitats across Massachusetts. Large flocks gather and roost communally. 
  • Fun Fact: Not native, introduced to North America from Europe. Now one of the most numerous and widespread songbirds on the continent.

Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus)

  • Features: This medium-sized flycatcher has a black head, back, wings and tail contrasting with a white throat and underparts. The red crown patch is often concealed. The wings have white bands visible in flight. 
  • Locations: These small black birds in Massachusetts are found in open habitats including meadows, fields, and marshes. Winters in South America.
  • Fun Fact: Aggressively defends nests against much larger birds and animals, earning it the nickname “Kingbird”.

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus

  • Features: Medium-sized songbird with jet black plumage except for red shoulder patches edged in pale yellow. Females are streaked black and brown. The conical bill is pointed. Wings display white bars in flight. 
  • Locations: These small black birds in Massachusetts are common in marshes, fields, and wetlands across Massachusetts. Huge migratory flocks stopover in the state.
  • Fun Fact: Males defend breeding territories with threat displays, exposing their scarlet shoulder patches. Song is a scratchy “konk-ka-reee!”

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

  • Features: Medium-sized woodpecker with black and white checkered back, white stripe down side, and yellow underside. Male has red forehead spot. It has a stout chisel-like bill. About 7.5 inches long. 
  • Locations: These small black birds in Massachusetts are found in Northern forests, especially those with sap-producing trees. More common during migrations.
  • Fun Fact: Drills neatly spaced rows of small sap wells in tree bark that provide food for it and other species. 

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)

  • Features: This long-tailed blackbird has glossy iridescent black plumage and a long keel-shaped tail. Males are larger and more colorful than females. The eyes are pale yellow. Roughly 12 inches in size.
  • Locations: These small black birds in Massachusetts are found in a variety of habitats from woodlands to marshes and urban parks. Forms large nomadic flocks.
  • Fun Fact: Walks on ground with a distinctive strutting gait, often mixing with other blackbird species when feeding and roosting.

Brewer’s Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus)

  • Features: Medium-sized songbird with black plumage that shows purple and green iridescence in good light. Eye is pale yellow. Male has yellowish eyes in breeding season when it displays its glossy plumage. Approximately 9 inches long. 
  • Locations: These small black birds in Massachusetts are found in fields, meadows and urban areas during migration. Winters in southern U.S. and Mexico. Breeds across northern North America.
  • Fun Fact: Compared to other blackbirds, has a disproportionately small bill and long legs for frequent ground foraging.

Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)

  • Features: The male is black overall with subtle glossy plumage and a distinctive brown head and throat. The female is grayish-brown with a pale throat. The thick finch-like bill is used to crack open seeds. Approximately 8 inches in length.
  • Locations: These small black birds in Massachusetts are found in fields, meadows, feedlots, and backyards across Massachusetts. 
  • Fun Fact: A brood parasite, the female lays eggs in other songbirds’ nests to raise its young. The baby cowbird often pushes out the host’s eggs.

Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus

  • Features: Male has black plumage on the underside and head, buffy nape, and brown back with white scapulars. Pointed conical bill. Females are pale brown overall with streaking. About 6.5 inches long with a wingspan of 10 inches. 
  • Locations: Summer resident in open grassy meadows and prairies. Long distance migrant wintering in South America.
  • Fun Fact: The male’s bubbling, joyful song given in rollercoaster display flights over breeding grounds is iconic.

Threats and Conservation

Habitat loss and collisions with structures pose threats. Creating and preserving parks and reserves provides essential habitat. Reducing lighting near roosts and migrations sites can reduce deaths. Taking down unused chimneys aids some species. Overall awareness of small black birds in massachusetts can aid conservation.

Conclusion

Small black birds in Massachusetts occupy diverse niches from aerial insect hunters like swifts to ground foragers like juncos. Protecting habitat and reducing mortality threats can secure thriving populations of these unique species into the future.