Most people living in North America are quite familiar with the great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus). They’re loud, they tend to congregate in large numbers, and they leave an unmistakable mark on everything unlucky enough to get caught beneath them. In fact, they’re often seen as nuisance birds, an unfortunate impression being seen right here in DFW where humans are colliding with these avian beasts—and the birds are losing. For example, air guns and other deterrents are being utilized to dislocate grackles from their homes so they don’t pose a threat to people and cars. We as a species can be so pathetically and heartlessly selfish. But anyway…
I’ve always been fascinated by grackles. Like other larger congregating birds, they have no problem giving chase to a hawk invading their territory, a true sight to behold as the poor hawk generally winds up abused and frustrated and forced to flee either to higher ground or another location altogether. This show is augmented when grackles and other species join forces against the predator.
Another thing I like about grackles is the plumage of male birds. It’s such a robust, iridescent black that one’s eyes can get lost in the color. Hints of blue and violet and green, and even a rich gray, all dance about the deep darkness that coats their feathers. It can be quite stunning. Add to that the male’s bright yellow eyes and you have a spectacular winged creature that’s a true sight to behold.
Yet I believe much of my enjoyment stems from an experience almost two decades ago when my father caught a male grackle in our back yard. It was completely by accident, of course, and no harm was done and no malice was intended. The bird happened to be quite near where Dad was standing. Being the consummate challenger of assumptions, my father gave chase thinking he wouldn’t catch it but at least would give it a try. Weren’t we all surprised to see him succeed!
I guess the bird really was too near Dad’s location. Although it immediately tried to take flight, my father’s proximity kept it from getting into the air quickly enough to escape, and the next thing you know Dad comes to the porch to show off his catch. After we all had a good look and got to touch the ebony feathers that seemed painted of a magical substance, the bird was released back into the yard where it went back to its personal business. Flee? Yep, it certainly did that, but it was no worse for the experience—and all us kids were just fascinated by the twofold wonder: Wow! Our dad caught a bird! —and— Wow! That bird sure was cool!
Since I was quite young when this happened, I suppose it cemented the grackle’s place in my heart and gave me a deep appreciation for its brethren.
But I also think the grackle reminds me of my favorite bird, the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). I first learned of them in first grade when our class began studying the local fauna in North Texas. Something about the red-winged blackbird took hold within me. It’s been my longtime favorite since then, and so the grackle with its similar size and color perhaps gives me a more common view of the less abundant bird I so love.
And now that I’ve rambled on ad nauseam, let me get back to the purpose of this post.
While taking a morning walk recently at the lake, I came upon some male grackles hanging out in a tree. They watched me closely but did not flee even when I came within three yards (three meters) of where they perched.
I kept an eye on them while I continued snapping photographs of other wildlife and general scenes. Because I stood near the confluence of several creeks feeding the lake, there was plenty to see. Nevertheless, my eyes kept returning to the grackles.
Finally, one of them came down out of the tree and landed perhaps midway between my position and their location. He stood near the shore and watched me closely.
Perhaps when he finally became convinced I had no intention of bothering him, he proceeded to grab a bit of breakfast from the ground around him. I couldn’t see what he was eating but could tell he was finding plenty of munchies.
That’s when I was startled by another bird rushing headlong through the dry, brittle winter grass. It was a female of the species. She came around from behind me and was less than an arm’s length away. Unlike her male counterparts, she didn’t seem to fear me much. I’d suspect she saw me more as an impediment to her breakfast than as a threat. She rushed around me in sweeping and random jogs, turning in sporadic directions as she stopped abruptly to snatch up some morsel of morning goodness. Again I couldn’t tell what the bird was eating, but she certainly seemed to be finding plenty of it.
She spent several minutes on the shore near me before finally moving down into the shallows for more hunting. Meanwhile, the males busied themselves with manly things (lots of yelling at each other, some beating of wings in manly displays of superiority, and eventually flying off to get into trouble without the wives hanging around to see it).