This is the time of year we see massive flocks of “black birds” (Starlings, Red-winged Blackbirds, Grackles) wending their way around the landscape in erratic plumes, descending on swamps and fields to feed, and roosting in noisy, dense colonies in the trees.
I always wonder what kind of food birds are finding when they hunker down in the vegetation, probing into dry leaves and stems.
A little research into the annual cycle of the Cattail reveals what a wealth of invertebrate life associate with this plant. Its starchy root stalks and rhizomes are fed upon by a variety of critters, but this underwater food source is not what the blackbirds are after. Instead, it might be orb-web spiders and orange garden spiders that have built vertical webs in among the vertical stalks of the cattails at this time of year. Burrowing Water Beetle pupae may be found at the base of cattail stalks, already settled down for their winter diapause, only to be dislodged by the sharp bill of a blackbird. In addition, larvae of the cattail borer moth overwinter in the cattail heads feeding on the seeds all winter — this resource sustains a variety of birds, like Black-capped chickadees, throughout the winter.