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black bird / blackbird

In America, this name is given to different birds, as to the Quisculus veriscolor, or crow blackbird, and to the Argelaius phœniceus, or red-winged blackbird (Sturnus Predatorius, Wilson) — Webster, 1882

“One for the blackbird, one for the crow…”

In Little Town on the Prairie (Chapter 9, “Blackbirds”), the Ingalls family eats the pesky blackbirds that destroy the oats and take over the cornfield. They fried in their own fat, and at dinner everyone agreed that they were the tenderest, most delicious meat that had ever been on that table. Later, Ma bakes twelve of the birds into a blackbird pie.

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that at first their fields were infested with only common blackbirds, but these were joined by yellow-headed blackbirds and blackbirds with red heads and a spot of red on each wing. I don’t think that Laura meant the common blackbird from Australia (Turdus merula). I’m sorry, but who in their right mind would eat anything with the name Turdus?

The American common blackbird is the common grackle – Quiscalus quiscula. The red-winged blackbird is Agelaius phoeniceus; the yellow-headed blackbird is Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus. You will need to know these for the final exam.


The Little House Cookbook (Walker, 1979) has a recipe for “blackbird pie,” only it says you can’t hunt blackbirds in the United States, so you should use the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), which may be hunted. I say we should be authentic and use blackbirds. You can hunt blackbirds in South Dakota, and almost everywhere else, for that matter. Especially if they’ve eaten all your oats and you can’t keep them out of your corn, even when you run up and down the rows waving your bonnet.

Blackbirds are native migratory birds and thus come under the jurisdiction of the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a formal treaty with Canada and Mexico. Blackbirds are protected by Federal Law (Title 50, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 21.43) in the United States except that they may be killed when “found committing or about to commit depredations upon ornamental or shade trees, agricultural crops, livestock, or wildlife, or when concentrated in such numbers and manner as to constitute a health hazard or other nuisance.” Some states and local governments may have additional restrictions on killing blackbirds. Starlings were introduced from Europe and are not protected by Federal law. (Barbara Walker wrote that starlings were introduced in the 20th century, but it was actually in 1890.) Blackbird hunting, anyone?

kernel. A little grain or corn; a single seed of a grain-bearing or other plant; hence, any thing included in a shall, husk, or intergument; as, a kernel of corn. — Webster, 1882

One for the blackbird / One for the crow / And that will leave / Just two to grow. Pa’s planting adage is a common one with many variations, a hopeful way of looking at seed-germination and survival. The idea was to plant “more than you’d need” for a successful crop so that the odds would be more in your favor. Bugs, birds, rodents and plain-old growing conditions might lessen your chances, so you might as well give them their share in advance. Farmers in other parts of the world might plant one seed for the squirrel, rook, cutworm, weather, or even to die before germination.

Pa corrects Grace when she calls the kernels corns, as Webster defines a corn as a single seed of certain plants. Pa’s saying (but not his pun based on it) appeared as a planting rule in New England Farmer (Boston) in September 1833 as “One for the black-bird, / One for the crow, / One for the cut-worm, / And two to grow.” It was widely published as an “old adage” prior to 1880, sometimes substituting root worm for cut-worm, or varying the number of kernels planted. In May 1878, the verse appeared in the poem, “Dropping Corn,” written by Mary B.C. Slade, published in Wide Awake, An Illustrated Magazine for Children. It was reprinted in newspapers many times over the years.



Gamebird Pie. Clean well, inside and out, a dozen small birds, quail, snipe, woodcock, etc., and split them in half; put them in a sauce-pan with about two quarts of water; when it boils, skim off all scum that rises; then add salt and pepper, a bunch of minced parsley, one onion chopped fine, and three whole cloves. Cut up half a pound of salt pork into dice, and let all boil until tender, using care that there be enough water to cover the birds. Thicken this with two tablespoonfuls of browned flour and let it boil up. Stir in a piece of butter as large as an egg; remove from the fire and let it cool. Have ready a pint of potatoes cut as small as dice, and a rich crust made. Line the sides of a buttered pudding-dish with the crust; lay in the birds, then some of the potatoes, then birds and so on, until the dish is full. Pour over the gravy, put on the top crust, with a slit cut in the center, and bake. The top can be ornamented with pastry leaves in a wreath about the edge, with any fancy design placed in the center across the slit. — Fanny Lemira Gillette, White House Cook Book (Chicago: R.S. Peale & Co., 1887), 88-89.

Roasted Game Bird. Carefully cut out all the shot, wash thoroughly but quickly, using soda in the water; rinse again, and dry with a clean cloth. Stuff them and sew them up. Place them in the oven, and baste with butter and water before taking up, having seasoned them with salt and pepper; or you can leave out the pork and use only butter, or cook them without stuffing. Make a gravy of the drippings thickened with browned flour. Boil up and serve in a boat. These are very fine broiled, first splitting down the back, placing on the gridiron the inside down, cover with a baking tin, and broil slowly at first. Serve with cream gravy. — Fanny Lemira Gillette, White House Cook Book (Chicago: R.S. Peale & Co., 1887), 88.


black bird / blackbird (LTP 9-10, 23; PG)
     blackbird pie (LTP 9)
     fried (LTP 9-10)
     gravy (LTP 9)
     “one for the blackbird, one for the crow…” (LTP 2)
     “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” (LTP 9; PG), see “Sing a Song of Sixpence”
     red headed with red wing spots (LTP 9;PG) – most likely Agelaius phoeniceus
     yellow headed (PG)