Dear Bird Folks,
A few days ago we had hundreds (no kidding) of grackles in our yard. They were everywhere. It was scary, like a scene from Albert Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds. What gives?
– Ed and Marguerite, Brewster, MA
Yo, Ed and Marguerite,
I hate to start my response by being fussy, but I’m quite sure the guy who made that blasphemous movie about birds was “Alfred” Hitchcock, not Albert. Albert was Alfred’s younger brother. Albert didn’t make movies. His claim to fame was working all his life to become a prince. It seemed like a great plan, but unfortunately things didn’t work out for him. Within a week after finally reaching his goal, the new Prince Albert tragically ended up in a can. And to this day no one has let Prince Albert out of the can, no matter how many thirteen-year-old boys call and ask for him to be let out. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, ask the nearest thirteen-year-old boy. They have been making that same prank phone call, with the same punch line, since the telephone was invented. The boys may not know why they do it or why it’s supposed to be funny, they just know they have to do it. It’s part of their DNA. If you don’t believe me, Marguerite, just ask Ed. I’ll bet he made the same prank calls when he was a kid, if they had telephones back then. Maybe you’d better ask him about that, too.
The grackles you saw were migrating or at least getting ready to migrate. Late October is their time to head south. And judging from the complaints I get about them, this year’s grackle migration couldn’t have come soon enough. We get more complaints about grackles than any other creature, except, of course, squirrels. (Squirrels are still, and will always be, the gold standard by which all backyard creature complaints are measured.) Grackles are so unloved that the only creatures that will hang out with them are other grackles, which explains why they are often found in flocks. Usually, if you see one grackle you’ll see a bunch. During the summer they travel in family groups but during migration they can be found in flocks of hundreds.
The Common Grackle is one of the most abundant birds in North America, but that weren’t always the case. Grackles don’t do well in dense forests, so there wasn’t nearly as many of them before the European settlers arrived. That all changed once the clear-cutting began. The explosion of farms and farmlands caused an explosion in the grackle population. Today there are millions of grackles throughout the eastern half of North America, and they all love our birdfeeders. But our grackle issues are nothing compared to what farmers have to deal with. It seems grackles have the bothersome habit of flying down and pulling seeds out of the ground just after the farmer has planted them. For some reason farmers don’t like that. Picky, picky, picky.
Grackles also have a few other nasty habits up their sleeves. They have been known to follow robins around and steal worms right out of their beaks. They will also raid another bird’s nest and fly away with an egg or nestling, and may even kill an adult bird from time to time. Grackles especially have a thing for House Sparrows. They will not only kill House Sparrows but they will then proceed to eat out their brains. How lovely. Before you totally hate grackles, you should know that like most things in life grackles have a good side. They consume huge amounts of annoying pests including Japanese beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars and, of course, House Sparrows.
One of the grackles’ more interesting and less gruesome feeding habits is eating acorns. Some acorn-eating birds, like ducks, will simply swallow acorns whole and let their gizzards do the work. Other birds, like jays, open acorns by smashing them apart with their beaks. Grackles have their own unique way of opening acorns. Inside their beaks is a sharp ridge called a “keel,” which the bird use to cut through the hard shell of the acorns. The keel opens acorns like a can opener opens a cans. Hey, maybe grackles can use their keel to get Prince Albert out of his can. It’s just a thought.
During the summer, a handful of grackles are usually all we see eating in our yards but during their fall migration, the number of birds can increase dramatically. In late October it’s not uncommon to see hundreds of grackles (plus a few other assorted blackbirds) moving through a neighborhood like locusts, squawking and looking of food. All of this activity seems to freak some people out, but I think it’s cool. A moving swarm of black birds, combined with scarecrows, cornstalks, skeletons and carved pumpkins adds the perfect touch to the Halloween season.
I think you should enjoy the migrating grackles, Ed and Marguerite. It’s the last you’ll see of them until next March, when they’ll return from the south, ushering in the coming spring and triggering a whole new load of complaints from my customers. While they are gone the poor squirrels will have to work twice as hard to fill the annoyance void left by the grackles. Don’t worry, though. It’s a challenge that squirrels are more than capable of meeting.