For the Birds Radio Program: Common Grackle
Every spring, right about the time when killdeers and red-winged blackbirds are becoming conspicuous, another sign of spring wings into Minnesota with less fanfare and a lot less welcome. The common grackle is every bit as much a genuine sign of spring as crocuses and robins, but the grackle lacks both the lovely fragility of flowers and the melodiousness of other songbirds.
The bad reputation that grackles carry from their wintering grounds in the central and southern states to their nesting grounds throughout most of the United States and Canada comes from their voracious pigging out at feeders, and from their rudeness toward small birds. Ogden Nash wrote, “They bully more attractive birds/ With hoodlum deeds and vulgar words.” I’ve seen grackles steal worms from robins, and have received reports from many people about backyard grackles that kill smaller feeder birds such as Pine Siskins, goldfinches, juncoes, and sparrows. More than one of these reports has involved a single grackle piercing the skulls of several small birds and leaving the carcasses, as if killing out of sheer spite. Grackles sometimes eat eggs and small nestlings, but seldom if ever eat feathered adults. Ogden Nash concluded, “I cannot help but deem the grackle/ An ornithological debacle.”
Grackle plumage is all black, like crows, but they have shiny, iridescent feathers on their heads, a streamlined shape accented by their long tail, and yellow eyes. The crow is considered one of the most intelligent birds on the planet, but it takes more than black feathers to produce brains and the grackle seems to have been shortchanged in the intelligence department. I once lived in a house with a patio surrounded by a four-foot-high Plexiglas fence bordered by two-by-fours. Five or six different times a grackle flew down onto the patio and then couldn’t figure out how to get back out. It was one thing to have the grackle dashing itself against the Plexiglas, but even after I covered it with cardboard and newspaper, with bright sky and waving branches just above, the bird continued to smack into it as if it never once occurred to it to look up and see the obvious way out. Each time I had to catch the bird to release it, and even as it flew about desperately trying to elude me, it wouldn’t fly up to clear the fence. In my observation, grackle behavior seems far more pre-programmed than that of Blue Jays and crows, grackles far less capable of learning.
But if a bit stupid and graceless, grackles are far from all bad. They’re handsome birds, that iridescent head glowing purple in sunlight, their long tail accentuated by a sharp point especially noticeable when males are displaying. When grackles first arrive in spring, the males are intensely charged with hormones, and strut about on lawns, puffing out their shiny, leather jacket-like plumage to look larger and more macho than they already are. They produce a squeaky song that may not be melodic but is rather pleasing to hear. Most of these breeding displays happen in April rather than the lusty month of May, when grackles are already getting busy with eggs and baby birds. They usually nest in tall evergreens near lakes, rivers, and streams. Although single pairs can nest on their own, grackles often band together in nesting colonies. By June, their eggs are bustin’ out all over, and the noisy babies leave the nest about 19 days after they hatch. By then they’re fully as large as their parents but with dull brown plumage. The fledglings make loud, raspy begging calls as they follow their parents, and for a while in early summer baby grackle sounds overpower robin and oriole songs in a lot of neighborhoods.
If grackles are unwelcome at feeders, they’re more than welcome on lawns and in gardens. These James Deans of the bird world may strut and sneer, but when they gang together at one of their slugfests, they’re not punching each other out but actually eating the slugs, along with weevils, cutworms, and even army worms. Grackles may be seedy-looking pests, perhaps the best natural example of the old maxim, “you are what you eat,” but like revving motorcycles and blaring car radios, their machismo and lust for life embody the pulsing, throbbing springtime itself.