The Bird That Sounds Like a Rusty Hinge

In early March of my first year of birdwatching, I heard a mass of strangely robotic, raspy sounds from the row of white pines next to my house. Since my mind was constantly in bird-learning mode, I automatically thought they were birds. I stepped outside. It sounded like there were dozens calling from the canopy. They performed a non-stop chorus of screeches and squeaks. But they hid themselves well in the branches. I must have stood for minutes before a few eventually fluttered in and out of sight. They were large, their black plumage shining blue-green and purple, and their tails long.

I didn’t take long to flip through my Sibley’s and ID them as Common Grackles. A short memory surfaced of my walking down my street a couple years before, during springtime. A few of these blackbirds flew zoomed overheard. Having no idea what they were, I was amused by their weird squawks and questioned why they were in such a hurry.

For the next two years, the grackles timed themselves to appear in my neighborhood in early March. This year, however, the first arrived in late February. They amass by numbers of fifty at the least. Rarely are they seen individually. All day long, many smaller groups pass over, line-dotting the rich blue sky, softly uttering chitip. The more unhurried grackles like to perch at the tops of the tallest trees, watchful, thoughtful, in constant communication with one another. They glide or flap from tree to tree, squawking mid-light. They walk on branches. They walk on lawns. They swarm on lawns. They peck and peck as they stride, yellow eyes always wide. Their glossy feathers shine brilliantly and beautifully when hit by sunlight.

They are vigilant. If you are standing next to a window and move a little, they become spooked and flee to the trees all at once. Last spring, a mixed flock of mostly grackles and a few red-wings and cowbirds was perched in the tallest tree of the neighborhood. Their vocalizations rattled the air. An airplane flying at high altitude began to pass over them. The blackbirds abruptly silenced themselves. The airplane’s roar was all that sounded. Once the roar was out of hearing range, the blackbirds resumed vocalizing.

The Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) is an Icterid, a part of the blackbird family, comprising numerous species such as Red-winged Blackbirds, meadowlarks, orioles, and other grackles (Boat-tailed Grackle, Great-tailed Grackle). They permanently live in the U.S.’s eastern half, including southeast New York (my personal observations reflect this eBird graph). Their breeding range extends as far northward as central and eastern Canada. Some migrate to winter in Texas. They reside and breed in many kinds of habitat: woods, fields, farmland, marshes and swamps, suburban areas, and urban parks. Like crows, they have a generalist’s diet: seeds, grains, fruits, insects, spiders, lizards, crustaceans, mice, eggs, and even small birds. According to Audubon, their songs and calls are described as a “high-pitched rising screech, like a rusty hinge.”

When the first grackles arrive during spring migration, a lot people who feed backyard birds might as well say out loud, “Oh, shit.” The blackbirds swarm at feeders, push the other birds away, and – in a matter of minutes – devour all of the seed and suet. Grackles are also known to consume so much commercial corn that millions of dollars have been lost. But it’s more personal for suburban homeowners.

I didn’t know grackles could be so voracious. Just a day or so after I learned of their existence, one descended upon a fresh suet block, which, to my shock, was gone in no time. Chunks of suet fell to the ground as the grackle pecked roughly at it. Not even fifteen minutes later, the suet cage was empty once again. I thought it was rude of the grackle. The other birds would show up for a couple minutes to eat and then leave, giving one another turns (as cordial as bird can be in the hierarchical order). Each block would typically last for at least week.

For the rest of that spring, I guarded the suet as much as I could (I had time on my hands because I was attending graduate school). No more than, say, five at once would visit my backyard, but they still caused me grief. They hung around all day long. As soon as a grackle or two landed on the tree’s branches, I’d bang on the door and they’d scatter. This solution was temporary; the grackles would annoyingly return within the quarter hour. Whenever a block was finished, I didn’t replenish the cage right away – the grackles would see and immediately come for the suet. Once, I became so exasperated that I stomped of the house, grabbed the cage, and took it inside. (I felt very bad for that trio of Brown Creepers that expected to the suet be on the tree just after I grabbed it. That was the first time I ever had three creepers in my backyard simultaneously and never did again.)

I still tried to scare the grackles away as best as I could. I recruited my retired mother when I started working. Although she expresses zero interest in birding, she has become attached to the birds that visit our feeders. Whereas I feel ambiguously towards grackles, she simply dislikes them. This year, my mother bought a generalist feeder. Of course, the grackles began dominating that too. My mother loathes them for wasting the money I spent for the seed and suet to be eaten by these “greedy” birds. To her, they’ve grown to be pest-like, worse than blue jays. She likes the fact that scaring them away requires low effort: all one has to do is make a slight movement in the room for the grackles take off. They’re more jumpy than jays. Since I’m still unwillingly unemployed, we’ve been scaring them away together this spring.

It’s only a couple days away from April. I’m already weary of managing the suet. A few grackles remain to nest, but most are still migrating. I continue to wait for those grackles to finally move on. But perhaps at that point, the weather may be warm enough for the birds not to need rendered beef fat anymore.

For the past two years, a grackle pair has nested in the yew trees outside my bedroom. I watched two grackles carry dried grass to the yews several days ago. They will have one or two clutches. The nestlings’ will chatter harshly and hungrily, learning from their parents’ so quickly to be rambunctious.

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for this post. We saw some very energetic female grackles in Florida – probably boat-tailed grackles, but looked more like great-tailed ones to me, even though their range supposedly doesn’t include Florida.

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