Lessons from Fort Wild: Who eats sweet gum balls?

Discovery Place Nature

Sweet Gum Ball Inset

On a recent Friday in December, it was a balmy 70 degrees, unseasonably warm for late fall, so I decided to take a stroll around Fort Wild. This has become my favorite part of working at the Museum.

As I stepped outside, I immediately noticed the milky sunshine coming through the bare branches of the outstretched hardwood trees. In the near distance, I heard the chatter of a raucous group of blackbirds having a ball in the warm weather.

I looked on as they continued to speak and frolic high up in the branches. In the winter, it is not uncommon to see large flocks of blackbirds, with several different species foraging and roosting together.

As I continued on to the Paw Paw Nature Trail, that is when I felt it, what I thought were rain drops. I knew it was unlikely that the wispy cotton candy clouds in the sky could produce rain, so I stood still for several minutes and listened to the mysterious drops hit the forest floor.

When I looked up, I saw what must have been 50, maybe even 100, small blackbirds sitting in the two sweet gum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua) that towered above me. It wasn’t rain drops hitting the ground after all, but bits and pieces of sweet gum fruit and seed. The birds were going to town on the bountiful fruit, and the litter was hitting the ground in the way a light snow falls in the winter.

The animals dropping their leftover crumbs turned out to be the common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) and the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). The common grackle is larger with a heavier, slightly curved bill, and the males are iridescent in color. Male red-winged blackbirds have distinctive red markings on their wings, called coverts, while the females are brown and very sparrow like.

That day, I learned that blackbirds are more than willing to eat the fruit of the sweet gum tree, those annoying spiky balls you step on when you’re barefoot in your backyard!

So whether you find yourself in Fort Wild among the giant poplars and oaks, or outside in your own backyard, take a moment to observe and wonder.

  • Written by
  • Alden Picard