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Those jaunty grackles. May 9, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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Here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, we anticipate the return of the grackles each spring with the same enthusiasm most people reserve for robins. Not that we have anything against robins. And of course we love seeing the golden breeding plumage reemerge on our goldfinches, who’ve been camouflaged in olive-drab all winter, and the arrival of bluebirds, orioles, hummingbirds, and even the great blue heron who terrorizes our neighbor’s water garden.

But the grackle’s cocky personality gives him an edge as far as we’re concerned. Beautiful and glossy, with black, green, purple, bronze, and even blue highlights in his plumage, he always seems to have every feather in place, ready to step out in his tux and tails for a high-society evening affair. Clearly, he knows that he’s at the top of the totem pole, too: Just watch him prancing around the deck, strutting his stuff, then abandoning dignity for a moment to snatch a piece of dry cat food from the outdoor cat’s bowl. He knows he’s entitled.

In our area, these big, bold birds—about halfway between a red-shouldered blackbird and a crow in size—come in two types: the common (or, in our area, purple) grackle and the rarer and larger boat-tailed grackle. Common grackles have purple heads, bronze bodies, and golden eyes. Male boat-tailed grackles are iridescent purple- or blue-black, with a distinctive tail that ends in an oval spoon shape. Female boat-tails are only half the size of their showy mates (who can reach almost 15 inches long with a nearly 20-inch wingspan) and brownish.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a source we very much respect, boat-tailed grackles are generally found in marshy habitats along the Gulf Coast and up the Eastern Seaboard. Though they might come as far north as scenic PA, it seems unlikely that they’d find their way inland to our Southeast PA location. Yet, they do, at least one or two each year, and it’s a thrill for us to see them.

The smaller common grackles (typically 11 to 13 inches long, with 14- to 18-inch wingspans) are the ones we see most often. Not a surprise, given their prediliction for nesting in tall conifers, such as those that border two sides of our property. They can live for more than 20 years, so we suspect that our grackles have been here before and will be here again. They’re wily, adaptable, and omnivorous—just like people. No wonder they seem so self-assured!

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that they’re really fond of corn, which certainly explains their success in our area, where farm fields dot the landscape and the chief crop is corn raised to feed dairy cows. It’s enough to make us feel guilty for loving these glossy, impudent pirates. But then, we’re pirate fans here at Hawk’s Haven, flying the Jolly Roger proudly in our own backyard. We suspect we’ll continue to enjoy our grackles’ antics until we see one setting off flares in its plumage, as Blackbeard did in his famous beard to terrify his victims by surrounding his head with a demonic aura of smoke and flame. Until then, grackles make us laugh. And we think that’s a good thing.

Onward grackles! Welcome back.