For the Birds Radio Program: Grackles (updated with this year's info from 1986

Original Air Date: April 6, 1987

Updated from 1986-05-16. (3:42)

Duration: 3′42″


(Recording of a Common Grackle)

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’re the type who prefers a handsome, devoted parent who eradicates harmful insects, the grackle may be the bird for you.

Grackles returned to the Northland in mid-March this year, over a week ahead of schedule. So far most of the birds back have been males, but last week I saw a couple of females. It’s hard to sex a lone grackle, but when both sexes are together, the females are smaller and duller–the purple iridesence of the males is not as pronounced on them.

The Grackle is not a popular bird. Not only does it eat baby birds from their nests, but it kills adults as big as robins. Sometimes its murderous binges take place during a severe cold snap, when the grackle is desperate for food, but sometimes the destructiveness seems utterly pointless. A few years ago a grackle in Superior killed a multitude of Pine Siskins at a feeder and didn’t even bother to eat them.

Grackles are known to steal worms from robins and huge quantities of grain from farmers. But in the bird world, nobody, not even a grackle, is all bad. This large blackbird also eats a tremendous number of boll weevils, rose beetles, army worms, Japanese beetles, cicadas, and other pests–especially during invasions. And grackles eat that most repulsive of garden pests, the slug, which is a big plus in my book.

If you can look objectively at a grackle, you’ll see that the male is a handsome bird with his golden-yellow eye, his glossy iridescent head, and his sleek black body. His tail is long and pointed–he can hold it like the keel of a boat to impress females. Once the females return in a couple of weeks, males will start displaying on lawns all over town. They puff up their feathers and hold out their wings to appear larger and more macho as they strut around the females. If a female is suitably impressed, she will mate right there in the open. Most birds are far more modest and secretive during this vulnerable time.

Grackles roost in large noisy flocks in evergreens, which provide some shelter during late ice storms. They usually nest in evergreens, too, although there are many records of grackles nesting among the sticks of Osprey nests. It doesn’t harm the Ospreys any, and the grackles get free protecton–raccoons, squirrels and other predators that would love to eat a nestful of grackle eggs would never dare approach a nesting Osprey. And Ospreys are messy eaters–bits of fish are always available for the resourceful grackle to snatch.

Ogden Nash wrote the definitive poem about 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.

(Recording of a Common Grackle)

That was Odgen Nash, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”