Is there ever a bird species that a birder would prefer not to see? We probably shouldn’t admit it, but the answer in our case is yes. Actually, there are two.
When we lived in St. Petersburg, we had to stop putting out our feeders because of a flock of large, colorful but aggressive wild parrots. What they didn’t eat in a short session of wolfing down everything in sight, they viciously flung all around the yard. It was a mess. And no other birds dared to visit our yard.
Since we moved more inland, we haven’t seen any parrots, but we’ve encountered a great many Common Grackles. They arrive in groups and can empty our feeders in a few hours’ time. We’re not fans.
With all the lovely names of birds . . . Cardinals, Blue Jays, Barn Swallows, Golden Eagles, Chimney Swifts . . . it seems fitting that this species’ common name sounds like someone clearing phlegm from their throat.
The name is actually derived from the Latin word graculus (“jackdaw” in English—the common name of a similar looking, but unrelated, European bird).
Common Grackles are notable by their glossy black plumage with bright purple, bronze, or green iridescent highlights, especially on the head. Adult common grackles have pale yellow eyes, a sharp contrast from its dark colored head.
Nearly half of the common grackle’s twelve-and-a-half-inch length is its tail which is formed in a “V” in flight.
Its bill is long and sharply pointed. Males and females are very similar in appearance.
There are about 69 million common grackles in North America, stretching from the plains of Canada and the United States to the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Coasts.
Omnivores, common grackles will consume just about anything: seeds, grain, berries, insects, lizards, frogs, and minnows, as well as the eggs and nestlings of other bird species. In coastal areas, grackles will forage along the shoreline for small invertebrates, sometimes even wading into the water to grab live fish.
It’s not unusual for a grackle to steal food from other birds like Robins . . . and like ravens, they have even been known to attack and eat other adult birds like House Sparrows.
Throughout North America, the common grackle is considered an agricultural pest. The raggedy character in The Wizard of Oz should probably have been called the The Scaregrackle . . . because common grackles have traditionally been the single greatest threat to corn crops. Huge wintering grackle flocks devour corn sprouts and ripening corn, causing millions of dollars of damage annually. Not satisfied with just corn, they also attack fields of rice, sunflower, and other farm crops.
The common grackle males and females form breeding pairs in early spring. The female builds the nest in the shape of a bulky cup from weeds, grass, twigs and mud. The interior is lined with grass.
A social species, they often form large colonies of up to 200 nests well hidden among branches of dense trees or shrubs. usually near water and less than twenty feet above ground.
Both parents feed nestlings, bringing them mostly insects. Young leave the nest about sixteen to twenty days after hatching.
The Common Grackle frequently engages in a behavior known as “anting”. The grackle will hunch over on the ground near an anthill with its wings spread. The grackle then lets the ants crawl over its body and feathers. The ants secrete formic acid, the chemical in their stings.
The purpose of anting isn’t totally understood. The popular assumption is that the purpose is to rid the bird of parasites. Another theory is that anting may be related to molting.
Other birds that have been observed anting are flickers, Blue Jays, and Wild Turkeys.
Check our next post: “Running the Grackles Out of Town”
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