Flock of spackles, it is not

News-DemocratFebruary 7, 2014 

What kind of bird am I seeing now? It is a black bird and comes every winter in huge flocks. I thought it was a "spackle" but when I googled it, it didn't compute.

-- Claude T. Cable, of Fairview Heights

Close, but no cigar. "Spackle" is the putty you use to fill those holes in a wall before you paint. The birds you're currently seeing are probably either grackles or the Sturnus vulgaris -- the common or European starling, according to Trudy Moore at Wild Birds Unlimited in Swansea.

"Vulgaris" seems to be an apt description. Usually, these birds infest farm fields as they scavenge for leftovers from the harvest, Moore said. But when the fields are covered with snow as they are now, they become what many people consider vulgar pests as they target bird feeders or anything else they can get their beaks on.

If you're tired of seeing them of them stealing food from your more favored feathered friends, here's a tip: put out safflower seed. According to Moore and other experts, it is high in fat, protein and oil and is popular among cardinals, chickadees and others, yet starlings and grackles (and squirrels) are either not attracted to it or actually repelled by it. (See www.ebirdseed.com/safflower.html.)

But if you're simply trying to tell the difference, starlings are black with white speckles while grackles are generally black with a shiny blue head.

This morning there were at least 25 robins in the neighbor's yard. The robins were flipping the leaves up looking for something to eat. What do they eat besides worms that are frozen beneath the ground? I also noticed the goldfinches seem to be getting their yellow color back. I'm betting on an early spring. -- T.C., of Aviston

We can certainly hope for a warm-weather jackpot soon, but it may be like betting on Punxsatawney Phil, that unreliable Pennsylvania groundhog.

It used to be that, like human snowbirds, robins would fly farther south for the winter, said Trudy Moore, of Wild Birds Unlimited in Swansea. But that doesn't seem so much the case anymore. As long as they can find food, water and shelter, they're perfectly happy staying here, especially in the milder winters we've seemed to have enjoyed recently until this year.

As for what they're poking around for, they'll eat a variety of things. While a good, juicy worm might be preferred, they'll down any fruit that might be available, so if you can buy or put out pieces of dried apples, oranges, cranberries or raisins, they would be most appreciative. Moore, of course, would be happy to help you find a suitable mix in her store.

But don't forget about a reliable source of water, Moore stresses. Not only do the robins need it for drinking, but also bathing. While we may shiver at the thought of giving ourselves a bath in sub-freezing temperatures, it enables the robins to fluff their feathers, which provides more lifesaving insulation in the cold, Moore said.

As for the goldfinches, yes, the males do trade their drab olive for bright yellow in the warmer months, but considering the weather lately, maybe they just aren't watching Cindy Preszler or Dave Murray closely enough, Moore joked.

A few addendums to end the week:

ONE FOR THE BOOKS -- My recent answer on the oldest Illinois library may have implied that Belleville city residents were behind the formation of the German Library Society of St. Clair County. As historian Bob Brunkow reminded me, it was actually a group of "Latin farmers" in the Shiloh Valley in 1836. Their collection eventually was moved to Belleville in 1853.

FULL OF HOPS -- My friend and breweriana expert Kevin Kious, of Collinsville, says his research finds that the Jesuits were actually latecomers when they started brewing beer at Kaskaskia in about 1766.

According to historian Margaret Kimball Brown, Antonio Roland, of Kaskaskia, rented a red copper kettle from Pierre DuRoy on July 2, 1737, to make beer. "Roland shall repair the pot, make a copper lid for it and supply DuRoy with 100 pots of beer per year," according to the agreement.

In addition, on Dec. 12, 1740, Philippe Renault, of St. Philippe (near Renault), sold a lot and buildings to Nicolas Prevost. "The beer kettle, still and other distillery equipment are not included," the local records noted.

SCAM ALERT -- The Better Business Bureau recently warned that some credit card users should be on the lookout for strange charges on their statements.

The charge is small -- $9.84 -- and it is billed by an unfamiliar website. If you go to the website, you find it's not a business at all, but merely offers "customer support." The scammers obviously hope you will overlook the amount as insignificant.

If you find such charges in whatever amount, the BBB recommends you call your bank and ask for a new card. Your old card has been compromised and if you pay the bill, they'll likely be back for more.

Today's trivia

What favorite song of children resulted from the polio vaccine?

Answer to Thursday's trivia: The oldest New York City phone number in continuous use is -- what else? -- PEnnsylvania 6-5000, or, in today's usage, 212-736-5000. Issued in 1919, it has belonged to the Hotel Pennsylvania at 401 Seventh Ave. for closing in on a century.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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