Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Visit from the Grackles

Note: This program first aired on October 26, 2013.

Just last week, my neighborhood was taken over; from high up in the tree tops came a sound like the rusty hinged doors in a creepy haunted house, opening and closing over and over again. Interspersed with the creaking came squacks and knocks, it was a noisy crew of interlopers up there. The tops of the trees in my home territory were full, at least for a fleeting moment, of grackles.

Grackles are icterids, a family of songbirds that includes blackbirds, cowbirds, meadowlarks, bobolinks and orioles. They are an entirely new world group that encompasses about 100 different species between North and South America. The grackles in my woods were common grackles, Quiscalus quiscula, and if you look in the bird books you will find that there are several different races of this species, geographically distributed around the eastern half of North America, though they are making their way west as well. Grackles are birds of edges, they thrive in patchy habitat, open areas interspersed with wooded cover. Before European settlement they were not especially common, because much of North America was thickly wooded, too thickly wooded for grackles to proliferate. The subsequent development of the landscape here has been a boon for them, and their population has increased right alongside ours, as we clear more land for our homes and farms, and they respond in kind. In a sense, their population is tied to ours.

Which is interesting and a little ironic, because many people don’t like grackles all that much. Bird books describe them as boisterous and noisy and they are noted agricultural pests.  Online bird forums are loaded with irate posts from backyard bird watchers, all desperate for ways to keep grackles out of their feeders, as the grackles are thought to bully the other birds and prevent them from accessing food. While they are in the Passerine order, the song birds, grackles are not likely to sing you to sleep, their chorus sounds more like this: (play chorus from ebird). People like sweetly singing, little rare birds; common, loud, indistinct markings? Grackles have all the chips stacked against them.

That being said, I have nothing against grackles, and in fact, walking out into the yard and having my attention drawn to the cacophony in the trees was a magical moment. It was the end of a gray day, and suddenly there was new life in the air. These gatherings are their good byes, they are massing in preparation for leaving, or perhaps are already on their way, using my oak trees as a rest stop to eat acorns as they make their way south. And eat acorns they do. Have you ever tried to bite into an acorn? Its not easy, yet acorns are a favorite winter and migration prep food for grackles. They actually have a sharp keel in their mouth on their upper pallet that allows them to cut open the acorn. They are smart too, they are among the birds that practice “anting”, a behavior in which they land on the ground and allow ants to crawl up into their feathers. The presumed function of this behavior is to rid themselves of parasites. And they are beautiful. From a distance or in flat light they appear black, but when the sunlight hits them just right, their feathers reflect a gorgeous array of irridescent purples and greens.

So I was sad to see them go. One moment they were there and the next it was just silent empty trees. The briefness of their presence made it all the more special. Perhaps, had the whole flock taken up residence for the summer, I would have grown tired of the squeaks and scratches. But that isn’t what happened. Instead they were here just long enough to draw my attention, and then before I got a really good look, they left, leaving me wanting more. It is a reminder to not take anything in nature for granted, regardless of how common place it may seem to those around you. One person’s mundane is always another’s magic.


From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (the definitive online resource):

Nice info from a local North Carolina Audubon chapter newsletter