Brooklyn Bird Watch: Common Grackle

Shown here is the great Heather Wolf photo of a juvenile Common Grackle scampering toward the camera in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Perhaps Heather will someday tell us how she caught this juvenile bird scampering across the bricks directly at her camera?

Photo by Heather Wolf.

In the world of ornithology, the Common Grackle is highly praised for its multi-colored iridescent plumage, sometimes seen only at certain angles in the light, and sometimes the Grackle is described as nothing more than a “long-legged, lanky blackbird”.  

I remember researching the Grackle for the first time and noticed in the “People also ask” feature on Google that the first three questions were: “Why are grackles bad?” “What are Grackles good for?” and “Are Grackles nice birds?” So I was thinking, perhaps this bird has not yet, as they say, put its best foot forward.

And Heather Wolf’s photo reminded me of an article I read once by the ornamental horticulture specialist Carol Reese titled  “Grackles are not all good nor all bad.”

Reese describes seeing a swarm of Grackles: “I scattered several pitchers of black oil sunflower seeds as the winter storm struck Monday morning and went inside to warm my hands. Finches, cardinals, sparrows, juncos, titmice, towhees, chickadees and blue jays came quickly to the spread. The next time I looked, a mass of blackbirds was darkening the already gray sky. They settled at a distant point, then swarmed down the driveway on foot like Mongol hordes, the black wave most dense at the front edge.” 

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There are three species of Grackle: Common, Great-Tailed, and Boat-Tailed. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the Common Grackle as “Blackbirds that look like they've been slightly stretched. They're taller and longer tailed than a typical blackbird, with a longer, more tapered bill and glossy-iridescent bodies. Grackles walk around lawns and fields on their long legs or gather in noisy groups high in trees, typically evergreens. They eat many crops (notably corn) and nearly anything else as well, including garbage.”

Photo of a Boat-Tailed Grackle in Central Florida by Joseph Palmer.

In New York, the Common Grackle is the most abundant Grackle species. In Central Florida, where I live, we have an abundance of both the Common and Boat-Tailed Grackles. My photograph here is of a Boat-Tailed Grackle in the grass near Clearwater Beach Pier where the light caught some of that iridescent coloring throughout its plumage. When seen in person this iridescent coloring is surprisingly beautiful. It’s really bright, you might notice the blue iridescence is reflected in its eye.

The Morning Call reported “In a Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Survey from 1966 through 1987, data showed nesting grackles were more numerous than any other songbird, outnumbering even the Robin, Starling and Red-Winged Blackbird. Although many people pass it off as ‘just another blackbird,' the common grackle is truly a bird of color and beauty.”

I am not one to question any creature’s singing credentials, although as someone who has heard the Grackle many times while out photographing other birds, I do wonder about the term “songbird” when applied to a Grackle. Here’s what I got, as decribed by the Minnesota Star-Tribune: “They are classified as ‘songbirds' not because of the beauty of their songs but because they have all the vocal equipment a songbird needs. They make a variety of squeaks, whistles, and croaks. The typical song, made by both males and females, is a guttural ‘readle-eak’ accompanied by high-pitched, clear whistles. It lasts just less than a second and is often described as sounding like a rusty gate.”

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