Tag Archives: great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus)

For the birds

Close-up of a male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) standing on the pier (2008_12_07_001566)

I had a dream once.  For the birds, I might add.

I dreamed I discovered a new species of warm-weather penguin.  They were native to North America.  And the reason they had gone unnoticed until now was because they existed in only one place: my patio.

And since my patio is private, the penguins had been left to their own devices.

But how had I not seen them before now?  Well, in the dream my patio was a veritable jungle, with grass growing directly from the smooth concrete floor, tree branches sprouting from the fence railing and joists and latticework, and all manner of ivy and understory growth filling the area.

Yet it wasn’t just the penguins that I discovered.  No, it was much better than that.

In the dream, I rolled over in bed and looked out the windows that line the wall.  This is not at all unusual in the real world as it’s something I do all the time.

Nevertheless, the scene outside the windows was unfamiliar, all green and growing and wild, although in the dream this seemed perfectly normal, and as I watched, much to my delighted shock, a penguin hopped up from behind tall grass and settled near the window into what was no doubt a nest.  (In truth, in the dream I seemed not to notice what brought the penguin to the window, although I knew inherently that it was a nest.)

And as I watched the bird and became increasingly excited, somehow knowing this was a new species, a most unusual thing occurred—as if seeing a penguin on my patio in the middle of Dallas, TX, was not already unusual.

The penguin settled into its nest even as a capuchin monkey knelt down beside it and began petting it.

So you see, beyond the discovery of this new penguin species living right here in Dallas—right here on my patio—my dream also included the discovery of a heretofore unknown colony of North American capuchin monkeys.

But it gets better!  These discoveries, as marvelous as they seem, were made even more miraculous by the apparently unusual friendship between the two species.  A relationship not seen anywhere else on the planet.  Except on my patio.

And henceforth, my patio was always surrounded by observers and explorers, all interested in these magnificent discoveries and whatever other secrets the jungle of my patio might yet contain.

Most agreeable to me was that I never had to get out of bed to make any of the discoveries, nor to report them, nor to realize how these finds brought all manner of curious people and scientific types right to my home.  In point of fact, all this happened without me ever having to leave the comfort of my own bed.

Now, I wonder what Freud would say about all this…

A Male wood duck (Aix sponsa) standing posing on the lakeshore at sunset (2009_04_10_014839)

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  1. Male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus)
  2. Male wood duck (Aix sponsa)

My symphony

A male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) standing on the pier and staring at me (2008_12_07_001404)

To live content with small means, to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich, to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never, in a word to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common, this is to be my symphony.

— William Ellery Channing

[male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus)]

Say what you need to say

No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.
— Henry Adams

Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) singing from a tree branch (2009_03_08_012482)

I’ve never seen a bird hesitate to speak its mind.  And that even in the absence of an obvious audience.  They say what they need to say, and they do so without fear or hesitation.  There’s much to be learned from this habit.

Walking on the bridge to nowhere has afforded me an opportunity to view life through a unique lens, one not used by most people I know.  One of the first things I noticed?  Unspoken words.

Do we assume things need not be said, that those we might say them to already know what we might say and we therefore have no reason to say them?  Do we think we’ll be seen as silly for saying the obvious?  Do we fear the response?  Do we struggle clumsily with language and think we can’t communicate what needs to be said, at least not with the depth of spirit with which it’s meant?  Do we assume there will be time later to say these things?

There seems more than certain logic in this axiom: it’s better to say too much than not enough.  Yet even I must admit a great deal has gone unsaid in my life, some of it now too late to say.  And part of that embarrasses me for I am an advocate of people recognizing the impermanence of life and the lack of time promised.  The only moment we’re guaranteed is the moment we’re in right now.  That’s also the only life we can live.  Anything beyond right now is nothing more than conjecture.

A male northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) singing from a treetop (2009_02_20_010310)

For you see, setting foot upon the bridge to nowhere came unbeknownst to me.  I journeyed along thinking myself on the path I intended when in fact I had slowly come to be on the trail I now follow.  And when I made that known to others?  I discovered getting on the bridge came like a sunburn.

You lie happily in the sun turning yourself every fifteen minutes or so thinking about how gorgeous your tan will be.  Meanwhile, everyone around you is thinking you’re looking awfully pink and maybe you should head into the shade for a bit.  Each time they look, you’re a bit further along toward a burn, but for you you’re just toasty and in progress.  Only when the damage is done are you aware of it, yet so many saw it coming all along.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not laying blame.  I’m as guilty of this as the next person.  What I know stems from what came after I disclosed the bridge to nowhere.  “Perhaps that explains…”  “We had been thinking…”  “I noticed…”  Each response surprised me for each came like the onlooker who after the sunburn mentions how they thought you’d been looking like a freshly boiled lobster for the last hour.

Being on the bridge to nowhere surprised me.  It didn’t surprise many around me.  I wish I had known what they knew.  I wish someone had said something.

A male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) calling out (2008_12_07_001616)

Yet it’s not just the question of what might have been had I known what others saw when they saw it.  It’s also the question of opportunities missed.

I lost a grandmother, an aunt and an uncle in the last two years.  I lost three friends just in the past two months.  Each loss reminded me that I had not said what I should have said, at least not recently.  Sure, each of them knew I loved them, but how long had it been since I reiterated that?  Had they known my feelings in light of maturity or only from past disclosures tainted by age?

Too much goes unsaid in life.  Walking on the bridge to nowhere made that very clear to me.  Like the birds who speak when they need to speak no matter if anyone is listening, we humans need to recognize that it’s better to say too much than not enough.

For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change.
— Ingrid Bengis

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  1. Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)
  2. Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)
  3. Male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus)

Invasive versus introduced

I’ve focused a good deal of blog bandwidth of late on nonnative species in Texas, including blackbucks, aoudads, and various types of deer.  Then I expanded my focus beyond Texas so as to include the now ubiquitous house finch, a bird native only in the southwestern third of North America.  In each case—as throughout my years of blogging—I have religiously defined these species as “introduced” rather than “invasive” in much the same way that I define European starlings and house sparrows as “introduced” rather than “invasive”.

It is that distinction which spurred Seabrooke to leave this relevant comment:

I define “introduced” and “invasive” a little differently than you do, I think. I don’t find the two terms mutually exclusive. Introduced simply means to me that the species is non-native, and that it has been, whether intentionally or not, introduced by humans to an environment where it didn’t previously occur and would likely never have reached on its own. Invasive in my mind refers to the nature of what a species does when it finds itself in a new place — some may sit docilely where they were put and never spread very far (many garden plants and flowers fall into this category), but some others love their new location so well that they go crazy and start spreading out from where they were put. Some introduced species may not necessarily be invasive, while some invasive species could very well be native (especially true in disturbed areas, since it’s harder for anything — introduced or otherwise — to gain a foothold in an area of stable habitat; unfortunately, our human activities mean that few habitats are truly undisturbed anymore).

As I explained in my response to that comment, I agree with her use and definitions of those terms.  My tendency to mark a clear delineation between the two is intentional and strategic.  By way of explaining that answer, let me introduce you to some truly invasive species.

A male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) standing on the ground (2010_04_10_052604)

Great-tailed grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus).  Their northernmost range stopped in far South Texas as of 1900.  Since then, however, they have exploded northward and westward such that now they occur year-round throughout Texas and north through Oklahoma to Kansas, and west through Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California—all the way to the Pacific Coast.  Smaller migratory breeding populations stretch into Missouri and Nebraska.

A female great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) standing on a pier (2008_12_07_001394)

Great-tailed grackles continue to expand their range in North America and southward into the northern parts of South America.  This expansion is invasive as they are endemic to Mexico south to Columbia.  Unlike species introduced by people, whether intentionally or otherwise, these birds have expanded their range naturally into areas where they now compete with—and in many cases out-compete—indigenous fauna.

A male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) standing on the ground (2010_04_10_052647)

Yet because their presence is natural, even though it is invasive, they are tolerated—even celebrated—by the same nature purists who decry and bemoan European starlings and house sparrows, calling these latter two species invasive, and who enjoy house finches east of the Rocky Mountains as though they belong there.

But let’s not stop with great-tailed grackles.  Instead, let’s look at an even more invasive species of bird, one that has invaded most of the planet and is responsible for one of the fastest and largest territorial expansions of any avian species: the cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis).

A cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) standing atop some twigs (2009_05_17_019108)

Native to eastern Africa, these birds first arrived in South America in the late 1800s.  They flew across the Atlantic Ocean to get there.  The first confirmed cattle egret was documented in North America—in Florida—around 1940.  By 1996 they had occupied the entire continental United States and southern Canada.

A cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) displaying in a treetop (2009_06_20_023921)

Their global invasion carried them to islands far and wide, not to mention all of Eurasia.  In fact, they have established themselves nearly everywhere except in extreme or unwelcoming environments, such as mountain ranges, polar regions, deserts and boreal forests.  Aside from those places where they can’t survive, they seem destined to occupy the entire planet, a feat they are accomplishing in short order.

A cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) perched on a limb (2009_06_20_024031_f)

Interestingly, their range is still expanding where they have invaded and their dispersal from Africa is ongoing.  It might be said that as truly invasive species are concerned, cattle egrets are second only to humans.

Which brings me back to that delineation I often stick to between invasive and introduced…

The reason I make such a case for identifying European starlings as introduced as opposed to invasive is clear: nature purists like to call things invasive because it alienates the species and washes away all human responsibility.  A good example is the rosy wolfsnail (a.k.a. cannibal snail; Euglandina rosea).  This predatory mollusk is among the top ten most destructive nonnative species around the globe.  Native to Texas, I rather enjoy watching them, but we humans intentionally introduced them all over the planet in hopes of having them control the East African land snail (a.k.a. giant African land snail; Achatina fulica), a destructive species we also had introduced all over the world.

Unfortunately for native snail species in all those places, the rosy wolfsnail not only went after the African snail, but they also went after all the native snails.  This resulted in the extinction of many native snails throughout the world.  It also resulted in the wolfsnail being named a major invasive species.  But it’s not an invasive species!  We introduced them intentionally and with forethought, but now calling them invasive makes us feel better about hating them for all the damage they’ve done.

And thus comes the crux of the matter: both invasive and introduced species do what they do because they evolved naturally to do those things, whether it be killing snails or out-competing native birds.  In the case of truly invasive species, they move into nonnative ranges of their own volition and fight to claim new territory and resources; in the case of introduced species, we put them in nonnative ranges and then act shocked when they run amok—at which point we start calling them invasive so we can hate them and destroy them without admitting we are the problem, not the species we’re so angry at.

So I reiterate what I said to Seabrooke: I wholeheartedly agree with her understanding and use of “invasive” and “introduced”.  However, I will continue to draw a line in the sand between the two terms.  There is a massive difference between the two in light of how people tend to use them and what people justify by way of them; so few nature purists realize the hypocrisy or cognitive dissonance they express by picking and choosing which invasive species should be hated and which introduced species should be considered invasive; calling something invasive stigmatizes a species in the public’s eye and misinforms lay people as to who precisely is responsible for the damage that species is doing; and very few seem to recognize or appreciate the laughable irony of having humans call any species invasive because it’s harming native flora and fauna.