Grackles Need Love, Too

Wednesday, July 3, 2019
No, this is not a satire piece. This is an honest and true proclamation of my love for one of North America's most hated feeder birds, the Common Grackle. When you type 'Common Grackle' in to a search engine, you're met with hundreds of questions and articles similar to "getting rid of grackles", "are grackles and starlings the same bird?", and even "can you eat a grackle?". I mean, even the terms used for a group of Grackles are ominous in tone, "a plague of Grackles" or "an annoyance of Grackles". While I certainly can understand the frustration caused by a flock of these tenacious foragers emptying a recently filled bird feeder, I find it difficult to penalize them for the behaviours that millions of years of evolution has given them. Need convincing? Read on to explore the reasons why Grackles need love, too, and how we can live in harmony with these bird feeder underdogs.

A portrait of a male Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) illustrating the many shades of blue and purple of the head feathers.

Overview
While it is a common belief that Grackles are an invasive species like their equally despised feeder cohort the European Starling, the Common Grackle is indeed native to Ontario. Belonging to the family Icteridae, Grackles are in close relation to many songbird species such as Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, and (believe it or not) even our beloved Orioles. Grackles can be found in marshes, woodlands, agricultural fields, and backyards throughout most of Ontario from early Spring to late Fall, migrating South for the winter months. Common Grackles can be characterized by their elongated tails, tapered bills, and iridescent plumage. Often heard before seen, Grackles make a wide-range of calls and have been known to announce their arrival at a feeder with a boisterous croak.

A handsome male Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) showing off his bright blue headpiece.

Reason to love Grackles #1: They're beautiful.
Due to their villainous reputation, many people are quick to label Grackles as ugly, plain, and dull without actually looking at them. If you take a few moments to observe a Common Grackle of either sex, you'll notice that they are garnished with glossy black feathers that shimmer and shine when hit with sunlight. Males have the honour of being decorated with a striking blue and violet headpiece (and sometimes green), an accessory undoubtedly worthy of applause if seen strutting down a Paris Fashion Week runway. And how could we forget those eyes? The pale-yellow colour of the iris surrounded by a deep black eyeliner make for a mesmerizing appearance.

Reason to love Grackles #2: They're entertaining. 
Sometimes they're a little too pushy, a little too noisy, and a little too greedy for our liking (not unlike some of us humans! 😉). But if you take the time to sit quietly and observe a group of Common Grackles interacting with each other and with other birds, you will notice that they are quite comical. Grackles display a wide range of behaviours including courtship displays, singing and calling with various clicks, chirps, and guttural sounds, territorial displays, and one of my personal favourites, a behaviour called "anting". Anting is a preening technique exhibited by some bird species that utilizes ants to help control parasite infestations such a lice or mites. Ants are used because of their special ability to secrete formic acid (used as a defense mechanism to subdue their prey), which helps to kill any parasites living in the plumage of the bird. Anting is performed by picking up one or more ants using the tip of the beak, and rubbing them along the feathers typically focusing on the wings first, then moving on to the tail feathers. The same technique has been observed and recorded with birds using various citrus fruits such as oranges and limes (as shown in the video below), so if you happen to provide oranges for Orioles, you may just be lucky enough to view this interesting behaviour first hand.

Video footage of a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) using oranges in "anting" technique. Recorded by Helene Poulin.

Reason to love Grackles #3: They play an important role in the ecosystem. 
While they may seem like a big bad bully to some backyard birders, in reality the Common Grackle is a highly valuable prey item for many species including red foxes, coyotes, and bird of prey species such as owls and hawks. As predators, Grackles help provide pest control services to the environment by consuming insects like mosquitoes, black flies, and ants. Their most substantial role in the ecosystem lies within their droppings. Grackles are part of a large group of animals who essentially populate the Earth with millions of plants by dispersing seeds across the land in their droppings.  Common Grackles are omnivores, and their diet consists of a considerable amount of seeds, and even some fruit. Imagine how many forests have grown thanks to the work of Common Grackles!
Common Birds in Steep Decline outlined in The State of the Birds 2014

Reason to love Grackles #4: They're in trouble.
I know what you're thinking.. Grackles are everywhere. How can they be in trouble?  The State of the Birds 2014 - a study conducted by scientists from the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI) - found that 33 common US birds were in steep decline including the Common Grackle. The species found to have been in steep decline have lost more than half of their global populations over the span of just 40 years, largely as a result of human impact. Due to lack of interest and appreciation for Common Grackles, there is a chance that the decline could steadily progress with no real efforts to aid in increasing or stabilizing populations, as many conservation initiatives are publicly funded. This decline would eventually result in the collapse of breeding populations and in turn, the demise of the Common Grackle who, as mentioned above, is an essential species in our ecosystem for many reasons.

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) and Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) sharing an orange and BirdBerry Jelly.


Living in harmony with Common Grackles 

There is a deep-rooted bitterness toward the Common Grackle in the birding community. This animosity is often passed on to newcomers of the hobby, with many trying to rid their yards of Grackles before giving them a chance to show off their lustrous plumage or humorous antics. The simplest route to living in harmony with these underappreciated avian misfits is to transform the way we perceive them. So, if you have a group of Common Grackles visiting your feeders, rather than looking at them and thinking they're annoying, useless, loud, and dull, try seeing them for what they truly are.. charming, persistent, resourceful, and elegant - qualities we could only wish to possess. 🐦

Still not convinced that Grackles need love, too? We've got you covered. Visit our Problem Solving page to learn how to cope with them in your yard.

Happy Trails!
~ Shayna

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