That Lofty Grackle

I suppose I’m supposed to find something to admire in each of God’s creatures.

I know snakes can be striking (even when they aren’t). Once I’ve stopped bolting and return for a second look, I can appreciate the colors and patterns they display. And a lot of “garbage eaters” (ants for instance) can be a royal nuisance but I acknowledge the purpose they serve. I do admit to having a problem with fleas.

Birds of course are in a very different category. With few exceptions (even the Turkey Vulture has a brilliantly colored head), they are stunningly gorgeous with, often, songs to match.

The grackle really is no exception. At first glance it does appear to be all black, but look again for it’s highly iridescent with colors changing with the light from blue to purple to green to bronze. Peterson calls it iridescent purple with a deep bronze or dull purple back. It’s large enough to be noticed, approximately the size of a blue jay. Its yellow eye is bright and unmistakable.

That said, it does have a few traits that make me wish it would visit some neighborhood other than my own. Its voice is a loud protest. Nothing lovely there. Worse, to my mind, it’s a pig. Seldom travelings in less than a pack, its size and demeanor scare away the smaller birds which I tend to find much more appealing.

My little red squirrel continues to hold the speed record for emptying my feeder of seed but I have to give the grackles a definite second place. They also congregate with the red-winged blackbirds who, while a bit more brilliant, are equally objectionable. Really, guys, in spite of what you believe, I don’t think God put me here solely to keep you in birdseed.

Closely related to their cousins, those red-wings, the common grackle (to be official and to distinguish it from the boat-tailed or great-tailed) tends to prefer living in colonies and will defend only a small area around its nest. When those springtime urges occur, one may watch a number of males posturing for a single female. As time goes by, however, the number of males decreases until only one remains with his choice of a bride.

In early spring we may see males flying about with long pieces of grass in their beaks but, when things get serious, it is the female who builds the nest. Stokes says this will happen throughout April and well into May. Permit me to quote them a bit:

“When common grackles first arrive on the breeding ground, they may spend part of each morning in ‘singing groups.’ These are composed of as many as twenty birds, all perched in the bare branches of a tree and all singing at the same time. The Songs can be quite loud and are accompanied by the Ruff-out display in both the male and the female. Any one singing group may last for only a half hour, and during that time its membership changes as birds come and go.”

Eventually four or five eggs will be laid with just under two weeks of incubation to follow. Dad hangs around to protect the nest while Mom goes off to eat but, according to the book, he already has his eye out for a new mate and will high-tail it as soon as he can.

Their calls are common and, I find, easy to recognize for their basic unpleasantness, a raspy, harsh, high squeak, a drawn-out whistle or chaack, chitip, or brrrt.

In the earlier version of “Birds of America,” by T. Gilbert Pearson, this bird had earned a rather more pleasant title as the Purple Grackle:

“In the respects that he is black all over and, when on the ground, walks and — alas! is a nest-robber, The Purple Grackle is like a small edition of the crow. His cannibalistic propensities are well advertised by his neighbors, the robins, bluebirds, thrushes and sparrow, who are often seen mobbing him with the utmost fury. And when the birds unite in giving one of their number a bad name, we may be tolerably certain that he deserves it. Furthermore it must be conceded that the grackle’s skulking manners in nesting time and his cold and cruel yellow eyes strongly suggest the birds’ archenemy, the cat. In fine, that he is a good deal of a villain in bird-land is undoubtedly true, and pity ’tis ’tis true, for there is no denying that the bird’s plumage is very handsome; in fact, the iridescent hues on his head, neck, and shoulders are exceedingly beautiful; and he also makes an appeal for popularity on the score that his arrival is one of the sure signs that spring is at hand, and because he presents a fine appearance as he walks, indeed, almost struts, about on the deepening green of the lawns.

“A mistake which this grackle makes is in trying to sing. But perhaps the bird isn’t entirely to blame for this, for he may know that the scientists have put him among the “Oscines,” a suborder composed of ‘songbirds,’ a term which, however, in this connection means simply that the bird possesses well-developed vocal apparatus, and entirely disregards the question as to how he uses that apparatus, or whether he uses it at all. Perhaps the grackle isn’t able to make the scientific distinction between the song-bird who can sing and the songbird who can’t, and therefore supposes himself to be a singer. His demonstration of his proficiency in the ‘art divine’ consists in drawing in his head in turtle fashion, puffing out his body, ruffling his feather and then emitting a sort of asthmatic squeak, which suggests the protest of a rusty hinge.”

Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. Her Reason for Being was published in 2008 with Love in Three Acts following in 2014. Both novels are now available at Lakewood’s Off the Beaten Path bookstore. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.


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