Category Archives: Grackles

Members of blackbird clan known for early spring arrivals

Photo by Shauna Fletcher/Pixabay • A male red-winged blackbird produces his “kon-ke-ree”song and flashes his red wing patches to claim territory and attract mates.

I’ve long come to associate red-winged blackbirds with early spring. Most years, I get a friendly reminder in February that spring’s on its way when a vanguard of of red-winged blackbirds return in impressive numbers every March.

This year, my first returning male red-winged blackbird arrived on the evening of March 3. The early spring arrival perched atop one of the tall cypresses by the fish pond and sang is heart out. He’s been singing every day since his arrival, but I’ve not yet noticed any female red-winged blackbirds. It’s been my experience that the females lag a week or so behind the males in returning to their familiar territory.

The blackbirds arriving in spring behave much differently than the quiet, furtive ones that often make brief visits to feeders during late winter snowstorms.

The showy and loud red-winged blackbird male that’s once again taken up residence at my fish pond and adjacent stands of cattails has made himself right at home

“The kon-ke-ree song of the male red-winged blackbird is a sure indication that spring is on the way,” according to a profile located at the Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website.

At this time of year, the male red-winged blackbirds seek elevated perches to display and vocalize. Their loud antics are not designed solely to attract mates. Male red-winged blackbirds also sing to warn rival males from intruding into their territories.

The male red-winged blackbirds is a very aptly named bird. Glossy black males sport red wing patches that are often trimmed with a narrow band of yellow feathers. By contrast, female red-winged blackbirds are mostly brown birds that could easily be mistaken for large sparrows. Both sexes have sharply pointed bills.

Red-winged blackbirds are fond of wetlands. Any marsh or even a damp field or flooded pasture is likely to attract a few resident red-winged blackbirds. Females choose nesting locations in cattails or other marsh vegetation. She usually lays three or four eggs. Although she does receive some help from the male, most of the responsibility for raising the young is left to her.

There is a reason that male red-winged blackbirds are not always quite as engaged in feeding and tending their young. Male red-winged blackbirds are often polygynous, which means that males will often court multiple mates. His time is often occupied defending females and their respective nests from the advances of other male red-winged blackbirds.

Other relatives of the red-winged blackbird in the United States include the tricolored blackbird found along the Pacific Coast and the yellow-headed blackbird resident in wetlands west of the Great Lakes. Rusty blackbird, common grackle and brown-headed cowbird are other species of blackbirds found in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.

Photo by Pixabay • A common grackle perches on a shepherd’s hook while approaching a feeder.

The common grackles have also returned. I’ve been noticing grackles on lawns through downtown Erwin on some of my recent walks. Like American robins, grackles form loose flocks that spread out and forage on lawns and in gardens.

The grackle, as well as the red-winged blackbird, belong to the family known as Icteridae, also known as New World blackbirds. This rather large family of birds consists of such groups as blackbirds, New World orioles, bobolink, meadowlarks, grackles, cowbirds, oropendolas and caciques.

Old World blackbirds are actually thrushes while Old World orioles are not closely related to the orioles of the New World.

The human clearance of land for farming and residences has helped the common grackle spread far and wide. Grackles can become threats to crops and large flocks of these birds can certainly overwhelm the average backyard feeder. The grackle is an opportunistic bird and can learn to adjust its behavior to take advantage of a source of easy food. For example, grackles have learned to frequent outdoor areas where humans dine and inevitably drop food. Grackles will also eat almost anything they can swallow, including insects, small fish, amphibians, small rodents and the eggs of other birds, as well as berries, seeds and grains.

Grackles only make brief visits to my home during migration, but the red-winged blackbirds that arrive in early spring will stick around to nest, usually not departing until late summer. To reduce competition with other songbirds, consider scattering seed on the ground for grackles, which actually prefer foraging at ground level. Providing for them in this way may spare the users of platform and hanging feeders, which can include such smaller birds as chickadees, wrens and sparrows.

The larger the songbird, the longer lifespan they usually enjoy. Still, the longevity record for a wild grackle strikes me as quite exceptional. According to the website All About Birds, the oldest recorded common grackle was a male that lived to be at least 23 years old. He might have lived longer, but he was killed by a raptor in Minnesota.

Other birds will be returning this month, so keep an eye out for them. Some of the species I expect in March include brown thrasher and blue-gray gnatcatcher.

To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

Common grackles part of November’s changing bird lineup

 

Photo by Bernell MacDonald/Pixabay.com • Common grackles are quite accomplished at foraging for food in a variety of habitats.

November is a month of transition. The birds of summer have all “flown the coop,” returning to warmer climes to the south in Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Of course, even as hummingbirds, warblers, tanagers, vireos, and others have fled North America in advance of winter’s imminent arrival, other birds are arriving to take their place.

Many of the newcomers don’t offer the vibrant plumage of a scarlet tanager or a rose-breasted grosbeak, but they make up for the lack of striking feathers by remaining quite faithful to our feeders during the bleak, short days of winter. A hermit thrush and a dark-eyed junco represented some first-of-autumn arrivals when they showed up Nov. 6, followed the next day by a swamp sparrow. In addition to the sparrow, three ravenous common grackles descended on my suet feeders that same day.

For many bird enthusiasts, the “common” in this particular bird’s name is particularly apt. Tending to form large, noisy flocks, common grackles can easily wear out even the most generous welcome. Perhaps because I live at a mid-elevation area, common grackles are extremely infrequent visitors to my yard. I can be a little more welcoming to a bird that I know is not likely to linger.

Photo by diapicard/Pixabay.com • A common grackle perches on a shepherd’s hook in a garden. These large birds, which are part of the blackbird family, form flocks and bring big appetites to feeders during migratory stops.

Nevertheless, that same evening these three grackles must have spread the word because a flock of about 30 of these birds arrived. If I needed a reminder, the flock provided a quick one. A handful of grackles isn’t too disruptive, but a large flock can quickly overwhelm and intimidate smaller feeder birds.

Even so, I remain inclusive in my embrace of all feathered friends. A much maligned bird if ever there was one, the common grackle is worth a second look. For those who are able to overlook the occasional bad habits of birds such as Northern mockingbirds, mourning doves, or even cantankerous ruby-throated hummingbirds, there may be hope for this large member of the diverse family of blackbirds, known by scientific types as a member of the family Icteridae. This grouping of New World species, also known as New World blackbirds, includes such members as orioles, meadowlarks, cowbirds, bobolinks, marshbirds, orependolas, caciques and, of course, blackbirds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A boat-tailed grackle sings, if the bird’s harsh, grating notes can be considered a song, from a perch in a wetland in South Carolina.

The common grackle is known by the scientific name Quiscalus quiscula. In the southeast, in particular along the coast and in wetland areas, a common and related species is the boat-tailed grackle. Other species of grackles found in the New World include the great-tailed grackle, Nicaraguan grackle, Great Antillean grackle and the Carib grackle. A little more distantly related are the South American species golden-tufted mountain grackle and the Colombian mountain grackle.

One species — the slender-billed grackle of Mexico — suffered extinction at the dawn of the 20th century. Reasons for this bird’s disappearance are not clearly understood, but habitat destruction of Mexican wetlands and hunting pressures have been theorized as causes. Like others of its kind, the slender-billed grackle may also have been persecuted as an agricultural pest.

Like many other birds dependent on wetlands, common grackles have experienced population declines in recent decades. Although it seems odd to refer to a bird with a population estimated at around 73 million individuals in North America as on the decline, common grackles have suffered an estimated population loss of about 60 percent from historic highs.

Male grackles stand out from other blackbirds due to their sheer size. Males can reach a length of 13 inches, although much of that can be measured in an exceptionally long tail. A grackle’s plumage has a black sheen that can shine with brilliant iridescence that tends to appear purple, green or blue when the sun shines just right on the feathers. Females tend to be smaller than males and are a muted black and brown. Both sexes have long, sturdy bills and yellow eyes.

Most rural residents don’t have to worry about common grackles overwhelming their feeders, but some people living in urban and suburban settings have found grackles to be difficult guests. The birds have bottomless appetites and are aggressive toward more desirable feeder birds. Fortunately, migrating flocks in the fall tend not to linger. After a brief visit, which can still deplete supplies of seed and suet cakes, the grackles continue migrating.

Grackles are usually one of the earliest birds to return each spring. In fact, it’s not at all unusual for these large birds to make their way back to the region as early as late February. I am usually glad to welcome them back since I know that their return is a strong indication that some more favored species are certain to follow in their wake and that winter’s grip is waning.

Are you seeing new arrivals in your yard or at your feeders? Let me know by emailing ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Boat-tailed grackles perch on viewing equipment at an observation platform at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.