Speaking of Nature: Any day now — the grackles return

  • Photographed on a cloudy, snowy morning in early March, every square inch of this male common grackle is awash in iridescent color. In direct sunlight the feathers would shine with an “inner light.” FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

For the Recorder
Published: 3/8/2021 8:23:11 AM

From a weather standpoint, last week was just a little demoralizing. Nighttime temperatures back down in the 20s prevented much melting from happening and, depending on where you were in the reading area, a burst of fresh snow was actually a little insulting. I’ve been cooped up all winter and I am ready to get outside. Let’s get on with it already!

Then, things took a turn for the better. Daytime temperatures in the 40s flirted with our outdoor imaginations and sunshine started to do its work. The sound of meltwater dripping off rooftops and the sound of meltwater collecting in small streams that were awakened from their slumber was pure music. And then, of course, there were the birds.

Cardinals are starting to sing, chickadees are beginning their “phoebe” songs and the woodpeckers in my neighborhood were drumming up a storm. But the real treat is likely to arrive on this coming Wednesday or Thursday when the prevailing winds change direction and bring warmth to us from the southwest. The temperatures are going to flirt with 50 degrees and I think some springtime migrants are going to surf in on that wave of warmth and bring some cheer along with them.

The birds I am speaking of today are the common grackles that are due to arrive at almost any moment. Birds easily recognized by anyone who cares to look in their direction, common grackles definitely bring a bustle of activity with them because they arrive in large, noisy, wonderful flocks. Their numbers dazzle the eye and their southern accents dazzle the ear.

Typically lumped into a group of loosely related species known as “blackbirds,” common grackles are indeed black in color. However, the actual appearance of these birds is highly dependent on the quality and quantity of light that strikes their plumage. On a bright, sunny day the birds might look jet-black. A slight change in the angle of the light can produce a simply dazzling display of iridescent colors that span every color in the rainbow. Simply put, an adult male in the proper light is a mind-blowing iridescent extravaganza.

On a cloudy day, the coloration of an adult male lacks the eye-popping inner glow of iridescence, but the softer pastel hues are accentuated in such a way as to be even more beautiful … in my opinion, of course. I decided to include one of these “pastel” males for this column so you can see what I mean. The feathers don’t look like they are made out of shiny metal, but they are still dazzlingly beautiful.

Adult female grackles will have a cowl of blue feathers that cover the head and throat down to the level of the breast and the rest of the body is covered in what I shall call “graphite brown;” charcoal gray with a hint of dark brown. Female common grackles are also smaller than males and they don’t have the extra long tail that the males sport.

A curious thing about those tails is the fact that the feathers on the tails of male grackles are oriented in a deep “V” formation and the tails are so long that they are just about the same length as the rest of the body. The fact that both the adult males and females also have bright yellow eyes only accentuates their dazzling appearance all the more. They are real showstoppers.

So, in the next day or so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if large flocks of blackbirds appeared in the skies above us. These birds can make a lot of noise with their loud, squeaky calls and they can clean out your feeders in no time if they find free food. If such a horde should descend upon you, try to see the bright side of things: spring’s vanguard has appeared and the landscape will start bursting with life in no time at all.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 23 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information (including his email address), or head ove r to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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