Goshen News, Goshen, IN

April 20, 2014

OUTDOOR COLUMN: Grackles: Like'em or leave 'em

Goshen News

---- — Seeing a grackle, I read in “Birds of America,” is “one of the surer signs that spring is at hand. Surer, that is, than seeing a robin, a red-winged blackbird or a song sparrow. But I saw grackles last month, not long after I saw robins, redwings and song sparrows, and the weather was far from springlike, except for a day or two now and then.

A grackle is a blackbird. It’s a bird of the blackbird family, and it’s a black bird. It’s black, but it has an irridescent sheen, somewhat visible when a grackle is in the shade; very evident when it’s in the sunlight.

Some grackles have a purplish sheen; some have purple on the head, and a metallic or bronzed sheen on the body.

Once, they were considered two: Purple grackle and bronzed grackle, but now those two are one: The common grackle.

There are two grackle, according to the systematists, those people who name and classify animals and plants. Both are named for the size of their tail. Both have bigger tails than the common grackle. One is the boat-tailed grackle; the other the great-tailed grackle. The boat-tailed grackle lives along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, and across Florida. The greattailed lives from Louisiana to Southern California, north into Utah and southern Nebraska and in Mexico.

There’s a common grackle on the bird feeder on my window now, and two male red-winged blackbirds. The grackle is bigger, particularly its head and bill, and it has a longer, bigger tail. But it’s only about two inches longer, the length of a mourning dove, though it has been called “crow blackbird” because of its size.

The common grackle was once called “maize thief”, and generally disliked by farmers. In pioneer days when fields were small, a flock of grackles flying into a corn field when the corn was nearly ripe would cause a serious loss, as much as half the crop I’ve read, if they weren’t chased out promptly.

People who liked songbirds that nested around homes and built nests among the branches of trees or bushes, and on ledges around buildings. Birds such as robins and mourning doves disliked grackles as much as farmers. Grackles will raid the nests of other birds and eat both eggs and small nestlings.

The author of the article about grackles in “Birds of America,” which was first published in 1917, was obviously one of those people who don’t like grackles. He described a grackle as having “skulking manner” and “cold and cruel yellow eyes.” Further, he wrote, the grackle is “a good deal of a villain in bird-land.” He described the grackle’s song as “a sort of asthmatic squeak, which suggests the protest of a rusty hinge.”

Grackles, however, eat many things, not just corn and the eggs and nestlings of smaller birds. They eat other grain. They eat fruit. They eat many insects. They seem to particularly like grub-worms, and a small flock will often follow a tractor and plow, landing behind the plow and picking up grubworms and other insect larvae that are exposed by the turning of the soil.

They eat snails and crawfish, salamanders and even mice and small fish, catching the fish by standing on the shore or wading in very shallow water.

Grackles, in spite of the description of their song as like “the protest of a rusty hinge,” are classified as songbirds, with robins and song sparrows. As songbirds, they are protected by federal law, just as robins and song sparrows are. So, like ‘em or not, as I’m leaving the grackle that is currently feeding with the red-winged blackbirds at my feeder.