Wild Life / common grackle

scenes from the birds

Hi, friends — the full Hunter’s Moon was this past Wednesday, backlighting the trees like paper cutouts in a shadow show. In the morning before dawn, Orion sits low in the southern sky with his bright dog, chasing that poor two-star rabbit forever. Are we all so hungry, hunting? ’Tis the season. Before the dark-quiet of November, a full blitz and frenzy, when the grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) come to call. —Amy Jean

One year, while raking leaves in late October (the bright yellows of birch, mainly), we were swarmed by a flock of inky-hued grackles. It was a swarm like no other. Hundreds and hundreds of blackbirds perched high in the trees, in the shadows between oak and maple leaves, impossible to see. The birds chattered to each other with an incredible force of sound, squawks and squeaks ricocheting off tree trunks and rocks, soil and the side of our house. It felt like being inside an energetic, twenty-minute drumroll.

It happened again the other day, on a crisp-gold afternoon: hundreds of big, nearly invisible birds landed in the canopy above us. What an insane riot of squabbling—volume turned up to the max. I learned that a large flock of grackles is known as a “plague.” This doesn’t seem fair; it sounded more like fun.

The social fabrics of other creatures overlap with us and with others in ways we don’t understand. Do they think of us as big, dumb lumps? I wonder. We are oblivious to their nuances of sound and movement, and slow as mud. When the birds took off, they did so with chaotic precision, flapping close within a feather’s inch of each other.

Grackles don’t migrate much, and many not at all. They are adaptable birds that eat a range of foods, from seeds to bugs to french fries, and tend to benefit from humans. They don’t mind swooping in to perch on parking-lot trees and garbage bins across North America, east of the Rockies. They will just as surely alight on and gobble up cornfields (hence the “plague”—we have not always had an easy relationship with these social creatures).

Surprisingly, given their ease around humans and adaptability, grackle numbers have plummeted by half in the last fifty years. They are a “common bird in steep decline.” We don’t know why, exactly, and it should be alarming—the steady disappearance of this boisterous bird, one of the native blackbirds of North America. They are impossible to miss, and yet they are missing.

Grackles are lanky and shiny, with bright yellow eyes that peer inquisitively from the iridescent blue, green, and brown hues in their deep black feathers. Though they look and act a bit like crows, they are not related to the corvids. Their intelligence is all their own. Grackles are known to shuffle their bodies into anthills, picking up a few ants whose formic acid helps keep their feathers free of pests (a phenomenon known as anting).

Grackles flock together and roost with other blackbirds and starlings. I like that they are easy in this way, sharing warmth and space with others, squeaks and squawks aplenty. Thousands of birds might roost together in winter (millions, even). The hundred-bird groups that visited us may have been at the beginning of a migration trip, or simply foraging before heading to their nighttime roost.

We overlap with these birds more than most. Will we heed their crazy calls, their plucky nature and flocking abundance, or will their disappearance seem sudden—the way it did the other day, when the silence set in.

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Common grackle links

  • Austin, Texas, has a love-hate relationship with great-tailed grackles; they get 3 out of 5 stars on Yelp.

  • A charismatic little clip of a male grackle, plus examples of their squeaky swing-set calls, at All About Birds.

  • Inky plumes in the skies over Illinois [YouTube] and a pit-stop at Lowe’s in Texas [YouTube]

  • Plus a lil YouTube vid of my own, from October 31, 2015:

Animal encounters in recent comments

  • Thanks for all the orb-weaver love, and, as always, please send your small stories of recent animal encounters. I’d love to hear.

Also

  • My cheeky grackle drawing is for sale; please let me know if you’re interested and I’ll send some of the proceeds to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


Wild Life #33 / this newsletter is a place to learn about the life around us, one bonanza of a bird invasion at a time. I do this because I’m not sure what to do about the millions of species in danger of extinction. It means something to see and enjoy the life around us. Thank you for being here.