Icteridae – Oropendolas, Orioles, Blackbirds & Allies

Orange-backed Troupial cterus croconotus ©James Lowen Website

Not enough birds have been the subject of poets pens but the Common Grackle has:

The Grackle
by Ogden Nash

The grackle’s voice is less than mellow,
His heart is black, his eye is yellow,
He bullies more attractive birds
With hoodlum deeds and vulgar words,
And should a human interfere,
Attacks that human in the rear.
I cannot help but deem the grackle
An ornithological debacle.

Icterids make up a family (Icteridae) of small- to medium-sized, often colorful, New-World passerine birds. Most species have black as a predominant plumage color, often enlivened by yellow, orange or red. The family is widely varied in size, shape, behavior and coloration. The name, meaning ‘jaundiced ones’ (from the prominent yellow feathers of many species) comes from the Ancient Greek ikteros via the Latin ictericus. This group includes the New World blackbirds, New World orioles, the bobolink, meadowlarks, grackles, cowbirds, oropendolas and caciques.

Despite the similar names, the first groups are only distantly related to the Old World common blackbird (a thrush) or the Old World orioles.

The majority of icterid species live in the tropics, although there are a number of temperate forms, such as American blackbirds and the long-tailed meadowlark. The highest densities of breeding species are found in Colombia and in southern Mexico. They inhabit a range of habitats, including scrub, swamp, forest, and savanna. Temperate species are migratory, with many species that nest in the United States and Canada moving south into Mexico and Central America.

Icterids are variable in size, and often display considerable sexual dimorphism, with brighter coloration and greater size in males being typical. While such dimorphism is widely known in passerines, the sexual dimorphism by size is uniquely extreme in icterids. For example, the male great-tailed grackle is 60% heavier than the female. The smallest icterid species is the orchard oriole, in which the female averages 15 cm in length and 18 grams in weight, while the largest is the Amazonian oropendola, the male of which measures 52 cm and weighs about 550 grams. This variation is greater than in any other passerine family. One unusual morphological adaptation shared by the icterids is gaping, where the skull is configured to allow them open their bills strongly rather than passively, allowing them to force open gaps to obtain otherwise hidden food.

Icterids have adapted to taking a wide range of foods. Oropendolas and caciques use their gaping motion to open the skins of fruit to obtain the soft insides, and have long bills adapted to the process. Others such as cowbirds and the bobolink have shorter stubbier bills for crushing seeds. The Jamaican blackbird uses its bill to pry amongst tree bark and epiphytes, and has adopted the evolutionary niche filled elsewhere in the Neotropics by woodcreepers. Orioles will drink nectar.

The nesting habits of these birds are similarly variable, including pendulous woven nests in the oropendolas and orioles. Many icterids are colonial, nesting in colonies of up to 100,000 birds. Some cowbird species engage in brood parasitism: females lay their eggs in the nests of other species, in a similar fashion to some cuckoos.

Not all species have been successful in adapting to human habitat changes, and a number of species are threatened with extinction. These include insular forms such as the Jamaican blackbird, yellow-shouldered blackbird, and the St Lucia oriole, which are threatened by habitat loss.

This family of 109 Icteridae includes New World Orioles, New World Blackbirds, Grackles, Cowbirds, Meadowlarks, Oropendolas, & Caciques. They are:

Yellow-headed Blackbird Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

Bobolink Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Western Meadowlark Sturnella neglecta
Eastern Meadowlark Sturnella magna
Red-breasted Blackbird Sturnella militaris
White-browed Blackbird Sturnella superciliaris
Peruvian Meadowlark Sturnella bellicosa
Long-tailed Meadowlark Sturnella loyca
Pampas Meadowlark Sturnella defilippii

Yellow-billed Cacique Amblycercus holosericeus

Mexican Cacique Cassiculus melanicterus

Chestnut-headed Oropendola Psarocolius wagleri
Russet-backed Oropendola Psarocolius angustifrons
Dusky-green Oropendola Psarocolius atrovirens
Crested Oropendola Psarocolius decumanus
Green Oropendola Psarocolius viridis
Olive Oropendola Psarocolius bifasciatus
Montezuma Oropendola Psarocolius montezuma
Black Oropendola Psarocolius guatimozinus
Baudo Oropendola Psarocolius cassini

Solitary Cacique Cacicus solitarius
Golden-winged Cacique Cacicus chrysopterus
Selva Cacique Cacicus koepckeae
Ecuadorian Cacique Cacicus sclateri
Yellow-rumped Cacique Cacicus cela
Scarlet-rumped Cacique Cacicus microrhynchus
Subtropical Cacique Cacicus uropygialis
Northern Mountain Cacique Cacicus leucoramphus
Southern Mountain Cacique Cacicus chrysonotus
Band-tailed Oropendola Cacicus latirostris
Casqued Oropendola Cacicus oseryi
Red-rumped Cacique Cacicus haemorrhous

Scott’s Oriole Icterus parisorum
Yellow-backed Oriole Icterus chrysater
Audubon’s Oriole Icterus graduacauda
Jamaican Oriole Icterus leucopteryx
Orange Oriole Icterus auratus
Altamira Oriole Icterus gularis
Yellow Oriole Icterus nigrogularis
Bullock’s Oriole Icterus bullockii
Streak-backed Oriole Icterus pustulatus
Black-backed Oriole Icterus abeillei
Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula
Yellow-tailed Oriole Icterus mesomelas
Spot-breasted Oriole Icterus pectoralis
White-edged Oriole Icterus graceannae
Campo Troupial Icterus jamacaii
Venezuelan Troupial Icterus icterus
Orange-backed Troupial Icterus croconotus
Bar-winged Oriole Icterus maculialatus
Black-vented Oriole Icterus wagleri
Hooded Oriole Icterus cucullatus
Black-cowled Oriole Icterus prosthemelas
Orchard Oriole Icterus spurius
Ochre Oriole Icterus fuertesi
Cuban Oriole Icterus melanopsis
Bahama Oriole Icterus northropi
Martinique Oriole Icterus bonana
Puerto Rican Oriole Icterus portoricensis
Montserrat Oriole Icterus oberi
St. Lucia Oriole Icterus laudabilis
Hispaniolan Oriole Icterus dominicensis
Orange-crowned Oriole Icterus auricapillus
Variable Oriole Icterus pyrrhopterus
Epaulet Oriole Icterus cayanensis

Jamaican Blackbird Nesopsar nigerrimus

Yellow-shouldered Blackbird Agelaius xanthomus
Tawny-shouldered Blackbird Agelaius humeralis
Tricolored Blackbird Agelaius tricolor
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Red-shouldered Blackbird Agelaius assimilis

Screaming Cowbird Molothrus rufoaxillaris
Giant Cowbird Molothrus oryzivorus
Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis
Bronzed Cowbird Molothrus aeneus
Bronze-brown Cowbird Molothrus armenti
Brown-headed Cowbird Molothrus ater

Scrub Blackbird Dives warczewiczi
Melodious Blackbird Dives dives

Cuban Blackbird Ptiloxena atroviolacea

Rusty Blackbird Euphagus carolinus
Brewer’s Blackbird Euphagus cyanocephalus <

Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula
Nicaraguan Grackle Quiscalus nicaraguensis
Carib Grackle Quiscalus lugubris
Greater Antillean Grackle Quiscalus niger
Boat-tailed Grackle Quiscalus major
Great-tailed Grackle Quiscalus mexicanus
Slender-billed Grackle Quiscalus palustris

Red-bellied Grackle Hypopyrrhus pyrohypogaster

Velvet-fronted Grackle Lampropsar tanagrinus

Oriole Blackbird Gymnomystax mexicanus

Colombian Mountain Grackle Macroagelaius subalaris
Golden-tufted Mountain Grackle Macroagelaius imthurni

Austral Blackbird Curaeus curaeus

Scarlet-headed Blackbird Amblyramphus holosericeus

Forbes’s Blackbird Anumara forbesi

Chopi Blackbird Gnorimopsar chopi

Bolivian Blackbird Oreopsar bolivianus

Greyish Baywing Agelaioides badius
Pale Baywing Agelaioides fringillarius

Yellow-winged Blackbird Agelasticus thilius
Pale-eyed Blackbird Agelasticus xanthophthalmus
Unicolored Blackbird Agelasticus cyanopus

Chestnut-capped Blackbird Chrysomus ruficapillus
Yellow-hooded Blackbird Chrysomus icterocephalus

Saffron-cowled Blackbird Xanthopsar flavus

Brown-and-yellow Marshbird Pseudoleistes virescens
Yellow-rumped Marshbird Pseudoleistes guirahuro

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 109

Useful Reading
Photographers & Artists
  • Red-winged Blackbird Video

    The Music of Nature proudly presents "Red-winged Blackbird," a delicious video portrait of a male in full song. The Red-winged Blackbird is common across North America, breeding in marshes and meadows. Excited males puff out their red epaulets (shoulder pads) as they sing.

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