Speaking of Nature: Keep your eyes peeled for grackles

  • Though they are often called blackbirds, grackles, when seen in the proper light, are actually anything but black. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Two male grackles during snowfall. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson


For the Recorder
Sunday, March 04, 2018

At the beginning of every new year, I add a new column to a table that shows the arrival dates for species that I find to be important telltales of certain seasons. My current list contains the names of 38 different species that I have identified as being indicators of something important. The earliest dates on this list are recorded next to birds that I think indicate the arrival of spring, and I can officially report that the first date has now been recorded.

This arrival coincided with a bizarre change in the weather that occurred over a 24-hour period. On Feb. 21, I found myself outside on a ridiculously warm afternoon. The temperature on my deck was 71 degrees and I decided to celebrate by sitting outside in short sleeves and bare feet, and write in my journal.

Yet, when I woke up the next morning, the thermometer read 33 degrees and by noon it was snowing. You’ve got to love northeast weather, right?

Anyway, long before the snow fell I noticed that a large flock of blackbirds had appeared in my yard. Throughout the winter, I had seen the odd, red-winged blackbird or brown-headed cowbird here and there, but these sightings were occasional and always involved one or two birds. On Feb. 22, the number of blackbirds suddenly exceeded 50 and the most prominent members of this mixed flock were the grackles.

After the star-struck feeling of seeing a celebrity wore off, I remember noticing just how large grackles really are. The “winter” birds that frequent our feeders tend to be species that are all very small. The largest among them are probably blue jays or mourning doves. Both species have long tails, but both are also rather slender in their build. The common grackle is chunkier, thicker and heavier in its build and their sudden appearance at feeders really changes the social dynamic.

Suddenly, the assertive jays are set back on their heels. In a one-on-one contest between a jay and a grackle, I think the personality of each individual bird would ultimately determine who backed down first. Both species are aggressive and assertive, so it would depend on the very specific attitudes of each particular bird. When confronting each other in large numbers, however, the grackles are the clear winners.

I’ve been keeping track of blue jay numbers in my yard all winter, and there have been times when I’ve counted up to 12 jays at once. Anyone familiar with blue jays will have to acknowledge that to be a great deal of energy concentrated in one place. This sort of critical mass of jays results in a chaotic riot of activity, and conflict is never absent for long. Jays are sassy, brassy and get in each other’s faces with what appears to be great relish.

Now add in a larger, heavier bird with less personality and more of a brooding, threatening quality to its demeanor. Grackles are much less playful than jays are and they give off a vibe of being a little more dangerous. When you then have a bird like this in numbers of 20 to 50, you have a group of birds that represent a certain “force of nature.” Even the biggest, baddest jays will retire when confronted with so many competitors.

When you look in a field guide, you will find that grackles have a very wide palate when it comes to food. My copy of “The Birder’s Handbook” lists insects, crustaceans, other terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates, fish, small vertebrates, bird eggs, nestlings, fruit, grains, seeds, acorns and nuts as potential food for grackles. The two that really stand out on this list are the fish and the aquatic invertebrates. Grackles, at least in my mind, are associated with open water.

February may seem early for grackles to arrive, but that’s why I keep lists. Over the past 10 years, grackles have arrived at my feeders six times in February with Feb. 11 being the earliest date I have recorded in 2012. The latest date for my first sighting of grackles is March 15, which was recorded in 2014. Chances are that by the time you read this column you will have seen your own grackles, but if not, keep your eyes open. They’re here!

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 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, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.