For the Birds Radio Program: Great-tailed Grackle
I just spent a few days in Harlingen, Texas, at the annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. This is a big event in Harlingen , with close to a thousand people registering to go on field trips and attend seminars about birds, and many, many more gathering for the free birding fair, bustling with displays from birding groups and vendors and a whole huge room of activities for children.
It was a great festival, and since I hadn’t birded in Texas since 1997, my biggest fun came in seeing Texas birds again. To a lot of northerners who’ve never spent time in Texas, the state may seem like a vast wasteland, at least away from the coast. But Texas is home to a lot of unique and wonderful birds. With plenty of human snowbirds headed that way soon, it seems appropriate to highlight some of my all-time Texas specialties.
The first bird I saw as our plane landed at the Houston Airport was the Great-tailed Grackle, which I also saw when our connecting flight landed in Harlingen. Great-tailed Grackles are abundant down there, and loud. They’re found in disturbed habitat, and most birders dismiss them as irritating trash birds.
One was found in Minnesota at Black Dog Lake in 1982, and over the past two decades they’ve become fairly regular in the southern part of the state. The range expansion of this typically Mexican and Central American species may be partly due to the general warming trend, but is also due to their ability to thrive in disturbed habitat with fairly high levels of pesticides and other pollutants.
They’re huge birds, the males as big as crows though more slender, with a strangely long, robust tail. Females are a full size smaller-from the time grackle eggs hatch, the females are noticeably smaller and require far less food. Males are iridescent, glossy black with bold golden eyes. Females are much browner. They’re so conspicuously abundant that just about anywhere in the Southwest you can find them easily. Too easily for some people.
But there’s something cosmically cool about Great-tailed Grackles. They have a bizarre repertoire of vocalizations, from amazingly loud whistles and squeaks to a sound like crumpling a paper bag. Twenty years ago Russ and I brought our six-month-old baby Joey to Las Vegas for Russ to attend a meeting. While Russ was busy each day, I brought Joey bird watching with me. This was in April, when grackles were courting, and they were everywhere. Joey was only six-months old, but he was enchanted with the grackles, following them with his eyes and giggling and squealing with delight at every sound they made.
Perhaps it was that experience with my firstborn that endeared me to great-tailed grackles, or perhaps it’s that they are so fit to live side by side with humans. When I was in Texas this time, I walked through a huge mall complex parking lot at ten pm, four hours after dark, and the grackles were squealing and whistling from the trees, perhaps unable to sleep with the traffic noises and parking lot lights. But if they are kept awake all night in their roosts, they don’t seem to suffer by day, waking at first light.
I’ve seen dozens of them perched on rooftops, their beaks all pointed to the sky, silhouetted by a rosy sunrise. Hundreds and even thousands of them arrive at and leave from their roosts en masse each day, and the huge flocks race by at top speed, keeping their bearings and progressing more steadily and earnestly than starling flocks that wheel about, this way and that.
I always find it intriguing that people complain about the birds most like us. But perhaps most people expect birds to be purer somehow than us-to be angels rather than humans. Ogden Nash pegged the opinion most people have of grackles in his poem.
The grackle’s voice is less than mellow,
His heart is black, his eye is yellow,
He bullies more attractive birds
With hoodlum deeds and vulgar words,
And should a human interfere,
Attacks that human in the rear.
I cannot help but deem the grackle
An ornithological debacle.