The Red-winged Blackbird village in the northwestern corner of the park shows unusual activity these past few days. Groups of a dozen or more females, freed from the nests, cluster in the fern tops, chattering, and occasionally fly up and around in a swarm before settling again. The eggs have long hatched, the gaping beaks have been stuffed, the fledglings have taken to the sky. You can see them, looking just like their parents, some male, some female, but a bit smaller, flying around chaotically like kids of the human species. The adult male cohort seems less numerous now; have they departed already, their business done? Before the Summer Solstice, in a few days, the whole Blackbird Village will empty out and lie silent, except for a few finches and song sparrows, who will move in.
This was not a great breeding season for the blackbirds here. They depend utterly on last year’s fennel stalks for the high perches where the males strut their stuff early in the season, and then they need the dense fresh growth of fennel for concealment during the nesting weeks. An overzealous park management sent its mowing machines to butcher much of the birds’ fennel habitat last autumn, and the aggressive Italian thistles took advantage of the opened airspace and moved in this spring like the Vandals into Rome. I’ve not seen a blackbird, or any other bird, perch on a thistle, or build its nest in one. The thistles couldn’t quite kill the fennel — nothing can — but they retarded the fennel’s development and reduced the birds’ breeding habitat. I also saw a number of blackbirds breeding in the tall weeds near the center of the park, east of the dog park, far from the birds’ usual haunt. But then, in May, management mowed that area flat. The next day, I saw blackbirds searching on the ground for what they had made, finding nothing.
I don’t know where they go from here. They’re a very numerous species, not in any danger of extinction at present, so there’s no cause to worry. But I do wish that our park offered better hospitality. It wouldn’t be hard. It wouldn’t require doing more. It would require, in fact, doing less — less butchering of the birds’ habitat with the mowing machines. I can understand that not everyone loves fennel. I wouldn’t have it in my garden. But in Cesar Chavez Park, the choice is not between fennel and roses. It’s between fennel and thistles. The thistles, like pornography, have no redeeming social merit. Fennel, on the other hand, is beautiful at all stages of its growth, even in death; it has numerous culinary and medicinal uses; it’s a great bird habitat; and when in full flower it makes the area smell like the licorice section of a candy store. When it comes to the park, I’m in the fennel fan club.
Bye, bye, blackbirds. See you next year!