The grackle is not a popular bird, I learned from reaction to last week’s column, in which I wrote appreciatively of the species. One reader suggested that the only way to appreciate grackles is with a shotgun. That is an extreme reaction – and acting on it would be a federal crime; grackles are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918.
The rap against grackles is straightforward. They are both crop thieves and nest robbers. These are not new indictments. John James Audubon painted a pair of grackles ripping the kernels from an ear of corn. “This is the tithe our blackbirds take from our planters and farmers.”
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In “Birds of the Northwest,” published in 1874, Eliot Coues conceded that the grackle is “sometimes annoying to the agriculturist by its mischief in the corn-fields,” but he insisted – along with Audubon – that “this bird has some good qualities recommending it to favor. It is obviously of great service in the destruction of insects.”
He quickly adds, however, “it has one very bad trait … it is fond of birds’ eggs and tender nestlings and destroys a great many, particularly robins.” There follows lurid testimony from an observer, Coues himself: “Coward-like it lurks about the robin’s vicinity until the parents are away, when it pounces on the nest, seizes an egg or a young one, and hastily retreats.”
In effect, he presents himself as an expert witness. “I had been aware of its fondness for eggs for several years, but only lately learned of this carnivorous propensity, which is doubtless the natural outgrowth of its habit of sucking eggs.”
In his “Life History of North American Birds,” Arthur Cleveland Bent is equally clear about the predations of the grackle. “The grackle’s reputation among farmers is almost as black as its plumage, for its faults, and it has many, are less conspicuous than its good deeds. Nor is it any more popular among its bird neighbors as can be seen by the hostility they show toward it, for many a robin’s or other small bird’s nest has been robbed of its eggs or callow young.”
Bent is equally forthright about the first point in the indictment against grackles: “The grackles are condemned by farmers on account of the considerable damage done by them to the grain crops during the planting season and until after harvesting has been completed. … Perhaps the chief damage to the corn crop is done when the grain is in the milky stage in summer; the grackles are flocking at that season and, where they are abundant, they swoop down in great black clouds into the standing corn; they strip the husks off the ear and eat the tender kernels, taking perhaps only a few from each one but rending many unfit for the market. …”
Doubtless, the grackles plagued fields of indigenous agriculturalists, as well. Coues found them “very abundant along the Red River of the North … and on the Mousse River.” Coues visited the area in the early 1880s, when he was the surgeon with the Army’s boundary survey.
The grackle has been given several aliases. Both Audubon and Coues referred to it as “the crow blackbird,” and Audubon added the word “common” to its name. This was an alternate name; both used the more familiar name, purple grackle. Bent called it “purple grackle,” discarding the reference to crows. Today, this bird is correctly called common grackle, according to the arbiters of bird names. The first bird guide I owned dated from the mid-1950s, and it used the name “purple grackle,” which has stuck with me.
Grackles are early migrants and early nesters, a trait that makes other birds vulnerable, since grackle young are nestlings when most songbirds have only begun their egg laying. Young leave the nest in late spring and begin their foraging.
As I commented last week, grackles can be conspicuous. Early this week, I counted 15 high in a cottonwood tree just as the sun was rising. I am suspicious that they timed their arrival in order to be first at the seed supply that I dumped on the driveway. It was gone before I had my own breakfast.
While these indictments are longstanding, my suspicion is that the grackle has made itself unpopular with bird lovers for another reason: its apparent arrogant attitude. The grackle preens and struts and utters a kind of creaking sound as it lords it over the backyard.
It is a beautiful bird, though, often strikingly iridescent. In sunlight, it appears dark blue, purple or luminescent bronze; these colors fade to brown or black in poor light. The grackle is immediately recognizable even without the iridescence. Its body seems elongated both in front, by a large bill, and behind by a long, keel-shaped tail.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.