The case for grackles

Glossy, iridescent, raspy and cacophonous, these blackbirds deserve our respect.

We were this close to Graculae. Carl Linnaeus, the 18th-century Swedish botanist who formalized binomial nomenclature, dubbed the Common Grackle Gracula quiscula. Eventually, though, grackles were assigned to the genus Quiscalus. A few myna species remain in the genus Gracula. So, yes, on bird censuses in places like Sri Lanka, you can go count Gracula and you don’t have to be in Transylvania. Though I also picture a reclusive ornithologist residing in a mountaintop castle taking on the pseudonym Count Gracula.

I asked a poll question in this space and on Twitter back in April. What should a group of grackles be called? A group is currently described as a plague by dint of their reputation as an agricultural pest. Their raucous, unmusical calls likely haven’t helped either.

It’s silly, though. Grackles are handsome birds—just look at how many colors are apparent in the above photo of a male—and a species that people of all ages can see easily in city parks and suburban backyards. And they’re resourceful, both as an opportunistic predator and in how they’ve adapted to our highly altered urban landscape. What’s more, Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes them as a common bird in steep decline.

There are two recognized subspecies of the Common Grackle. The purple grackle inhabits areas along the Atlantic Coast, east of the Appalachian Mountains and south of New England. Ours in the middle of the continent is the bronzed grackle. The males can be aggressive, and they face off with others with bills to the sky and in flaunting poses during mating season. They are indeed polygynous and can form loose colonies. David Allen Sibley writes this about grackles and their blackbird kin in the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior:

“The icterids have some very obvious and stereotyped displays. A prominent one is the bill-up display, a sign of aggression in which the bird sleeks down its plumage and points its bill up while facing another bird. Often the recipient of the display will return a bill-up display to the first bird. This warning display is often given in foraging situations when one bird comes too close to another.”

The neat thing is, because grackles are most everywhere, you can see these displays right in your backyard.

A quick Google search reveals any number of products meant to deter grackles—from nest cavities, bird feeders, farm fields and more. If we could just admire this bird, their numbers very well may begin to rebound. A creature like a grackle shouldn’t be something viewed as a hindrance; maybe it and other “pests” should even be looked upon with reverence.

So back to the poll. I posed four options, and they received fairly similar levels of support. A while back, I dubbed a group of cardinals an appreciation. Here, iridescence is the one that stands out to me, with gloss as a close second. Cacophony just reinforces the negative, noisy connotation. Same with rasp.

So the next time you see an iridescence of grackles, take a moment to appreciate them. See what they’re up to. And then take a second to tell someone else about how pretty they are.


The Blue Grosbeak of Lost Mound

On Saturday the 26th, I have a virtual screening of “Monty and Rose” scheduled for 2 p.m. Central time. Actor/artist Tony Fitzpatrick will graciously be joining me for a Q&A afterward. If you’d like to register for the event, click here.

Tony currently has a show hanging in his gallery until the end of July. There is more information here, as well as links to his online store.

Here is the back story from Tony about the above painting:

Two weeks ago I went birding with my pals Larry “Skillethead” Krutulis and Greg Neise. They told me that I’d probably get lucky enough to see a Blue Grosbeak, a Henslow’s Sparrow, and a Western Meadowlark. I’d have been happy to see any one of these. Going birding with two guys who’ve been doing this their whole lives was a transformative experience. When I wander through Humboldt Park and happen upon a bird I’ve never seen before? I’m happier than hell.

In the two days with these two pros? I saw 51 birds I’d never seen before.

It was like I was playing checkers and these guys were playing four levels of chess with 10 different opponents. It was otherworldly. They drove very slowly through Mississippi Palisades and listened...Every time they heard a bird?…They’d identify it and then do bird calls verbally; and sure enough the birds would appear. It was a communion with nature that was a wonder to witness. At a certain juncture they heard a Cerulean Warbler. I couldn’t breathe for a second—I’d never seen one before. This and the Blue Grosbeak were my most desired birds.

Sure enough—Greg conjured this bird, and about five or six others and it was astonishing. The little male warbler was pissed—here he thought he’d be knocking boots with a female warbler; only to be staring at three overweight White Guys. He wanted to fucking kill us.

This bird was infinitely more gorgeous than any I'd ever seen in a picture.

Later in the day? Both Larry and Greg heard a Blue Grosbeak. Sure enough we got out of the car and Larry and Greg worked their magic—the Blue Grosbeak was the most beautiful bird I’d ever seen. And it posed so I could remember the exact shape--this is it.  It was way more emotional than I expected. After 14 months of isolation this little Bird delivered all of the feels

I’d kept locked down. I promised myself to spend more time in Nature in the name of self healing. It works.


A look back at spring warbler migration

Recently I wrote about Connecticut Warblers and Prothonotary Warblers to mark the passage of a most wonderful time of year: wood warbler migration. The season went by all too fast, and now the tallies are in from Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary: there were 34 warbler species seen at Montrose this spring. While that number could be expected, it also should be celebrated. Above is a glimpse of a May 22 early morning visit to Montrose, featuring several species enjoying the Magic Hedge and surrounding environs. Thanks to Mitchell Wenkus for his videography talents.

TWiB Notes

It looks like the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which seeks to wean Illinois from coal by 2035, will go to a vote this week in Springfield. The bill will be part of a broader package of energy and climate reforms proposed by the Governor. One thing I failed to mention last week is that because it’s overtime session, the package will need a three-fifths majority to get it passed. So it’s a steep climb. But I’ve seen some provisions of the bill, and there are subsidies in it for a broad range of constituencies including downstate nuclear plants and their communities, and, even ComEd/Exelon…..Turning off the lights at McCormick Place could reduce bird mortality by 60% according to a new study on bird collisions published this week, in part by scientists from the Field Museum…..A year ago Saturday we inherited a Budgerigar, Charlie, from our friends who were moving to the Netherlands. Cheers to Charlie, who’s been our constant companion during this past year of isolation.

This post was emailed to the free list as well as paid subscribers. You can ensure you never miss a post by becoming a paid subscriber. On Friday, paid subscribers read about my visit with Piping Plovers Nish and Nellie on the first morning after they completed their clutch in Ohio. By becoming a paid subscriber, you support local storytelling and advocacy for birds and their conservation, while covering a portion of the costs of creating this newsletter each week.

Share

Share This Week in Birding