For the Birds Radio Program: Grackles

Original Air Date: May 16, 1986

Laura’s third “For the Birds” program, in the original trio of scripts she brought to KUMD in May 1986, is about a bird that people love (well, like) or hate.

Duration: 3′05″


If you are the kind of person who likes a shameless, gluttonous baby-killer, then the grackle is the bird for you. Then again, if you are the kind of person who prefers a handsome, devoted parent who eradicates harmful insects, the grackle may also be the bird for you.

Just this week I had a report of grackles destroying the eggs of a pair of robins nesting in a backyard in Superior. The robins ended up abandoning their nest. One year a grackle in this same yard took it in its head to kill a multitude of Pine Siskins, which it didn’t even eat.

Grackles are known to steal worms from robins, and to eat the eggs and young of other birds. They also consume large quantities of grain.

But in the bird world, nobody, not even a grackle, is all bad. They eat a lot of boll weevils, rose beetles, army worms, Japanese beetles, cicadas, and other insect pests.

If you can look objectively at a grackle, you’ll see that the male is a remarkably handsome bird: he has a golden-yellow eye, a glossy iridescent head, and a sleek black body. The female is duller, usually brownish. Both sexes have a long tail which they can hold like the keel of a boat.

You can easily learn to identify grackles flying above—even in a mixed flock of birds. Grackles fly in level flight, not undulating the way Red-winged Blackbirds do. And that long, pointed tail is an excellent field mark.

Grackles leave Duluth in winter, for the central and southern United States. They return here in March or early April, while the weather is still unpredictable and harsh. They roost in large noisy flocks in evergreen trees, which provide some shelter during a late ice storm or blizzard.

Right now, grackles are nesting. In lawns all over town you can watch the males’ breeding display. They puff their feathers and hold their wings out to appear larger and more macho, while they strut around a female. If she is suitably impressed, she will mate with him, right there in the open. Birds are very vulnerable to predators while they are mating, so most other species of birds are far more modest and secretive.

Grackles, like most birds, are devoted parents. They lay about five or six eggs. The nest is usually in an evergreen. But some grackles have nested at the bottom of osprey nests. It doesn’t harm the Ospreys any, and the grackles get free protection. Raccoons and other predators who would love to eat a nestful of grackle eggs would never dare approach a nesting Osprey.

Ogden Nash wrote a poem which pretty much sums up the grackle:

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.

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”