Wild Ideas: Not an angry bird, but a clever grackle

When a great photo from Larry Sherertz (nature lover, gifted amateur photographer, former Rappahannock County sheriff) appeared in my email inbox, I realized that I hadn’t thought about grackles for a while. That’s no surprise, since I live on a mountainous, heavily forested property with limited open space. Grackles prefer fields or other open areas, where they will congregate in flocks to feed, then roost together in nearby trees.

Angry? Demonic? For reasons unknown, grackles have evolved to have white irises. More likely this is an adaptation to help them identify others of their species, making it easier to reproduce.
Angry? Demonic? For reasons unknown, grackles have evolved to have white irises. More likely this is an adaptation to help them identify others of their species, making it easier to reproduce. Larry Sherertz

Larry wrote in the accompanying email that he’d been talking with Rappahannock News columnist Richard Brady about the latter’s Feb. 13 column on the pecking order at bird feeders: “I unfortunately bragged to him that, in 24 years, I had not seen a single grackle dominating the feeders and chasing the regular winter birds away. Well, guess what? Here they came . . . This one gave me a defiant look just as I tripped the shutter.”

“Angry Bird” was the subject line of Larry’s email, and, after seeing the photo, my editor asked if “their eyes really look evil like that,” or if it was just a trick of the light. The answer depends on who you ask. Yes, their eyes, with the white iris, can make them looked possessed, but that’s more likely just an adaptation to enable potential mates to find them.

On the other hand, corn farmers may find the grackle demonic, considering the bird’s propensity to eat corn — massive quantities of it. AllAboutBirds.org describes common grackles as the number-one threat to corn, eating ripening corn as well as corn sprouts. “Their habit of foraging in big flocks means they have a multimillion dollar impact,” says the website.

Grackles stand out from their blackbird cousins not just because of the eye ring and their propensity for eating mass quantities of corn but also because of their glossy, iridescent feathers — blue on their heads and varying dark colors on their bodies. Juveniles, by contrast, are a dull dark-brown.

Grackles belong to the Icteridae bird family, which, along with three genera that carry the “blackbird” name, also includes orioles, bobolinks and meadowlarks. Among North America’s three species of grackles, the common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) is the widest ranging. It is the only one native to the East, but also ranges through most of the rest of the country and into southern Canada. At a little more than a foot long, a single common grackle is impressive enough for a songbird, but when they amass in flocks they can be really intimidating to other birds.

Grackles typically arrive here in Virginia to breed in late February, just before Larry took his photo. Thousands at a time may roost together, according to the Stokes Nature Guide “Bird Behavior”: “As the birds arrive for the night, they may make spectacular formations in flight, one of the most common being a long line of birds trailing off into the distance.”

The large numbers of grackles at the roosts diminish during the breeding season as individuals pair off to claim nesting areas within colonies, defending only a small area around their nests. In the early stages of courtship, Stokes says, small groups typically take short flights and land together. Males tilt their bills and ruffle out their feathers to attract the females and discourage other males.

Both male and female grackles may be seen flying around with strands of long grass in their bills, Stokes says. draping it over their chosen nesting site well before actual nest construction begins. The female does the actual construction, in April, and can take up to six weeks to complete the nest, typically building it in evergreens near open areas, and often in the same place year to year. Once fledged, young grackles form large flocks with other juveniles of their kind, feeding and roosting together.

Grackles are ground feeders and, while corn is a huge attractant for them, they are actually omnivorous and quite resourceful, says AllAboutBirds.org: “They sometimes follow plows to catch invertebrates and mice, wade into water to catch small fish, pick leeches off the legs of turtles, steal worms from American Robins, raid nests, and kill and eat adult birds.” They are also specially adapted to eat acorns, having a hard keel on the inside of the upper mandible that they use for sawing open acorns, usually scoring the outside of the narrow end, then biting the acorn open.

Also on the grackle’s menu are grasshoppers, bees, crickets, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, isopods, earthworms, crayfish, snails, salamanders, toads, mice, frogs, ragweed seeds, blackberries, cherries, beechnuts, grapes, sunflower seeds, mulberries, bristlegrass and many other seeds, grains, nuts and insects, according to the Island Creek Elementary School website, a great resource on Virginia ecology.

One of the things that I love most AllAboutBirds.org is the list of “cool facts” it gives for each species. In the list for grackles, I found a very cool fact indeed:

“You might see a common grackle hunched over on the ground, wings spread, letting ants crawl over its body and feathers. This is called anting, and grackles are frequent practitioners among the many bird species that do it. The ants secrete formic acid, the chemical in their stings, and this may rid the bird of parasites. In addition to ants, grackles have been seen using walnut juice, lemons and limes, marigold blossoms, chokecherries and mothballs in a similar fashion.”

Once again, the meaning of “bird brain” is called into question.

© 2014 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 335 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

1 Comment

  1. I was in Austin, TX a few summers ago and as we parked at a mall, we were greeted by a plague of grackles. Looking back as we walked away, it was noted that a few of the birds were drinking the water that dripped from the air conditioner, while others were picking smashed insects out of the radiator. Adaptation to environment, indeed.

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