Monday, May 17, 2010

Grackle Voices

The grackle couple living in our big yew tree have been rather quiet the last few days, but their young have been making up for it!

Only a few days ago, it seems, the babies were simply little peeps deep in the nest. (And yeah, it's a deep nest!) Newly hatched, their voices were shrill cheeps seemingly no different than those of any other new hatchlings.

Within only a few days, their cheeps were deeper and had lost their shrillness. The sound was more like someone wiping a window with a rag. And then, I swear, it was only a few days, and their voices had developed a creakiness reminiscent of their parents’.

Throughout, they tended to stay quiet most of the time—until one of their parents arrived with big juicy grubs! Then they let loose; the nest was a squabbling, chattering melee until each little gullet was filled.

And the parents have been busy, incredibly busy. Not even much time for their own brief “check” calls to keep track of one another—now, they are obsessed with collecting food and flying it to the babies. Honestly, sunup to sundown, they stalk our backyard for grubs and other morsels. (I’ll be durned. Who knew there were so many grubs near the surface of the soil?) And the robins, of course, are doing their best to find every earthworm possible—fortunately, the grackles care more about grubs.

Thursday morning, the young grackles started venturing out of the nest. When I first looked at them, two or three were perching on the rim of the nest or on nearby branches. I took all the pictures for this post on that day.

I’m not sure how many babies there are—four or five. Grackles’ preference for thick evergreen trees fixes it so I can’t tell! Once the babies were hopping around within the tree, they were incredibly hard to locate. . . . Until the parents showed up with more food!

So the parents are mainly silent as they work, and the young are quiet most of the time, except for their intermittent frenzy of feeding squawks.

With the surprising silence in our backyard, it’s given me time to reflect on the strangeness of the grackle’s voice. Many people find their creaks and squeaks “ugly,” but I find them intriguing. Here’s an example of the disparaging reviews their songs often receive:

A mistake which this Grackle makes is in trying to sing. But perhaps the bird isn’t entirely to blame for this, for he may know that the scientists have put him among the Oscines, a suborder composed of “song-birds,” a term which, however, in this connection, means simply that the bird included possesses well-developed vocal apparatus, and entirely disregards the question as to how he uses that apparatus, or whether he uses it at all. Perhaps the Grackle isn’t able to make the scientific distinction between the song-bird who can sing and the song-bird who can’t, and therefore supposes himself to be a singer. His demonstration of his proficiency in the “art divine” consists in drawing in his head in turtle fashion, puffing out his body, ruffling up his feathers and then emitting a sort of asthmatic squeak, which suggests the protest of a rusty hinge. When a considerable number of Grackles do this at or about the same time, the result is what somebody has aptly termed a “good wheel-barrow chorus.” (Pearson, ed., Birds of America, 2:268)

But honestly? I think the “problem” is that they make sounds that we humans simply can’t imitate. I think if we call their voice “ugly,” it’s because we can’t imitate it. Even an onomatopoeic word like “squeak” doesn’t sound like a real squeak. Just the S, Q, and K parts.

Grackle language, like other percussive sounds, lacks vowels. They only speak in consonants—stops, fricatives, the occasional liquid. It is like the language a space alien might use, employing only sounds that we can’t even recognize as a language—thus a voice that doesn’t count as a voice.

If I were to transcribe a grackle’s song, I would use a lot of K’s, CH’s, and X’s, connected maybe by S’s and L’s. “Kxxxxchsssssslllchk!!”

Others have tried to transcribe the untranscribable voice. translates the song as a “gutteral readle-eak” that is “often described as sounding like a rusty gate.” Sue agrees with the rusty gate description. To me, it sounds a bit more like the squeak of a children’s swingset.

My vintage copy of the Audubon Bird Guide, by Richard H. Pough (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1946), says the grackle’s voice consists of “harsh cacks and a series of ascending squeaky notes with a pronounced metallic quality.”

Metallic? Hmm, I don’t quite get that. Maybe the purple grackle subspecies sounds more metallic than our bronzed subspecies?

In the Conservation Department’s book Birds in Missouri, Missouri state ornithologist Brad Jacobs described the grackle’s song as “kree del eeeek,” and the call as “chlak.”

Okay, this one is close. If there’s one vowel sound they might use, it’s “ee.”

My National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America suggests the song is a “short, creaky koguba-leek” and the call a “loud chuck.” —Really? “Koguba”? I think they must be describing that purple phase again, and not the kind we have around here.

At any rate, the grackle’s voice simply astounds and confounds me, and it’s something I take great pleasure in.

I hear them beginning their day while I lie in bed in the mornings, and I try to think of what I would guess I was hearing, if I heard a grackle voice out of context and was asked to identify the sound. This morning, I was thinking of someone whacking a big metal spoon on a large piece of heavy screen, hardware cloth. A few minutes later I thought it sounded like two small, hard, round creek stones being struck together, the sharp chuck and the strange subtle ringing they make. It’s a sound-association game for me as I lie there, picturing them stalking the grass for grubs.

The strangeness of their voice reasserts, with a shock, my knowledge that despite their backyard familiarity, grackles are creatures wholly apart from us. And then I consider the very real gulf that separates us humans from all our compatriots on this spinning world. It is hopelessly out of our hands; we cannot ever really “know” them. But I am not saddened about this state of affairs—I am awed by the mystery of it.

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