Saturday, May 8, 2010

Common Grackles

Here is a true “Opulent Opossum” topic for you: the common grackle. I’m choosing this bird as today’s subject because right now, I can hear the peeping of newly hatched grackles up in our big yew tree.

I can see the nest in the branches of that evergreen, though it’s too high for me to be able to see into it. The parents are busy gathering food. The “noise level” in our backyard plummeted as soon as courtship ended and egg-laying commenced. Indeed, the adults are practically silent, except for an occasional song or call as they fly to or from the nest, to check in with one another. Indeed, it sounds just like that. Grackle 1: "Check." Grackle 2: "Check."

Their songs aren’t as lusty and vigorous as they were a few weeks ago; instead they are softer, understated, isolated. I think the two are simply reaffirming their bond even though they are preoccupied with the business of feeding the young. I think the change is the same as when we humans experience between the breathless I love yous of new love (the “honeymoon stage”) and the I love you that people remark to each other right before heading to the office in the morning: And don’t forget your umbrella!

The reason I say that grackles are a fitting subject for this blog is that they are one of those critters, like the opossum, that’s so common people take the miracle of their existence for granted. Yes, it is true that flocks of grackles can cause serious damage to agricultural crops. They’re not “perfect” in every way in our viewpoint. But still, there is much to admire about them.

First, the bad stuff. From day one, grackles have been in love with European-style agriculture, which was imported to America, their native continent, with white settlers and spread westward from New England. Before the widespread clearing of land and establishment of crop fields, grackles undoubtedly were much less numerous. And you can’t blame them for taking advantage of a good thing: If someone offered you a free gift certificate to a fine restaurant, wouldn’t you take it?

So they feed hungrily on crops, particularly rice and corn, eating the new sprouts, eating the young kernels as they are still ripening, and then feeding on the ripe corn as well. They also hang around feedlots and any other place where grain is spilled on the ground. (They like to eat off the ground.) Supposedly, a group of grackles is called a “plague.” That sounds like prissy New England Puritan-talk to me.

But being an agricultural pest isn’t the whole story; grackles also eat plenty of insects, too, many of which are destructive. I’ve seen our backyard grackles picking big white juicy grubs out of the ground, and I know that some people resent those grubs so much that they spray poison on their lawns. Grackles also follow behind plows, picking insects from the split-open soil, even eating the occasional (destructive) rodent as well.

At any rate, Sue and I are not farmers—indeed, we purchase grain from farmers in order to feed it to the birds! (It is rather ironic, isn’t it!) The grackles in our yard aren’t overly abundant, and they don’t even seem to be the “bullies” toward other birds that some folks say they are. At the feeder, they more or less coexist with the other birds. For example, they and the mourning doves both feed off the ground, and any pushing and intimidating between them goes both ways, with the searching, stalking grackles encountering a plump, immoveable object in the seed-hoovering dove.

In terms of personality, the grackles in our backyard are simply direct. Their attitude toward the other birds at the feeder and the birdbath is nothing personal—instead, it’s as if they don’t even see the other birds. The grackles focus on what they want—the food, the water—and then get it. I haven’t seen them peck at the other birds or show aggression toward them. Instead, their foraging is as direct as their flight, as purposeful as their long strides through the grass. And I rather admire that. Grackles are cool.

Try this sometime, if you haven’t already: Next time you walk down a sidewalk with a fair number of people on it, try an experiment by altering your posture, facial expression, and gaze to see how other passersby respond. First, if you act lost in thought, eyes low, shoulders slumped, you will find yourself shifting to the side to allow more room for oncoming pedestrians to pass you.

However, if you push out your chest, shoulders back, hold your head high, stride with confidence, and gaze ahead with a proud, aware look, you might notice even big burly guys slouching a bit to the side as you pass by.

I think this is what we see at our bird feeders; the grackles simply intimidate the other birds with their body language. And the weird, pale yellow eyes might help. They give the bird an aware, penetrating expression, an intensity. Maybe it unnerves the other birdies.

I am always impressed by the grackle’s plumage. Calling it a “blackbird” is practically an insult, like calling Vincent van Gogh an “illustrator.” Though the grackle’s plumage is technically black, the structure of the feathers creates rainbows of iridescence. The subspecies or “phase” that we have here in Central Missouri is the bronzed grackle (I’m pretty sure), which has a hood of bluish-green iridescence on the head, and an indescribably nuanced rainbow of bronzy color over the rest of the body, with the tail emphasizing purple hues. The males are the most striking, but the females, though duller, still have quite a bit of iridescent beauty.

When the grackles were a-courtin’ this past month or so, the males were spectacular, with their various courtship postures accentuating their iridescence and the sleekness and splendor of their forms. When they flew, they seemed to be showing off their athleticism, the fineness of being alive. The oddly V-shaped way they hold their tail feathers when they fly during this time seems an expression of pure vitality.

Grackles are not starlings—they belong here in North America. If their numbers seem overwhelming at times, it is because we humans have created conditions perfect for their expansion. One Web source I looked at recently said, however, that grackle populations have declined in North America by 61 percent; at one point, there had been more than 190 million grackles, but now there are more like 73 million. One more declining species of bird in North America! So Sue and I don’t have a single problem with feeding them, and letting them nest in our yew tree.


Special thanks to Sue for taking these nice pictures for me, and for letting me use them on my blog. These photos are from a few weeks ago, when they were courting, pair-bonding, and mating. Now we need to get some pictures of their nest!


See my slightly newer post for a discussion of grackle voices and pictures of the babies!


Anonymous said...

How about "A gleam of grackles" instead of a "plague" ?

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading about the grackles, and I share your view of them : they are not "nuisance birds" ! We have several large pine trees in the yard and a colony of grackles nesting there. They do eat our elderberries, but there is enough to share !
This spring we became temporary foster parents of a nestling that somehow (predator?) had gotten out of the nest way too soon. Only partially feathered and totally unable to care for himself, we took him in. Putting him back in the nest was impossible: we couldn't see it from the ground, and from the sound of his siblings, it must have been at least 30 feet up in the tree !
The baby thrived under our care and became fully feathered in about 3 weeks. We finally managed to locate a wild life rescue person willing to take him, and it was with mixed feelings we handed him over. He was very tame, so we don't know if he can ever be released, but if not, the wild life rehab. person will make sure, he is taken care of.

Anonymous said...

My baby Grackle keeps putting his head back and looks sick. What is wrong?

Julianna Schroeder said...

Wow, thank you to both Anonymouses for your comments. To Anonymous #2 (June 21), I have no idea what to tell you, as I'm not a veterinarian or a bird rehabilitation specialist. Generally speaking, you shouldn't have a baby grackle in your "possession."

Conservation and wildlife specialists will almost always tell you that when you see a baby animal (including a bird) that seems alone and helpless, you should let it be. There's a good chance its parents are nearby and taking care of it. Or . . . sadly enough, maybe that birdie just isn't gonna make it, and some other creature gets to eat it for dinner.

If you've only had the grackle for a short while, I suggest returning baby to where you found it. If there's no chance of the parents returning, then contact your state conservation agency, a wildlife rescue organization, or a veterinarian.

Sorry I can't help you. Good luck with the baby.


Julianna Schroeder said...

. . . And to Anonymous #1 (June 20), I can see your point of view--if the little thing was *clearly* out of its nest *quite prematurely,* and the parents clearly weren't able or willing to help it, then it left you the choice of trying to help it, or letting it alone.

Feeding baby birds is tricky, busy work. I used to work at a pet store a long time ago, and sometimes we'd get in a young parrot that would still need bottle-feeding. Yikes! The food mixture and temp had to be just right, they needed to be fed off and on practically all their waking yours--and yet you mustn't overfeed them, too!

I'm really glad you were able to hand over the baby grackle to a wildlife rehabilitation group--those folks have a lot more experience in feeding and caring for critters. If it can be returned to the wild, that's it's best chance.

I'm glad both of you commenters are concerned for the welfare of the baby grackles in your yards. They are wonderful, native North American birds, and their populations have been declining.

We loved watching the parents feeding and caring for their young. So purposeful!

Thanks again for the comment,