Lots of 'blackbirds' line in the Piney Woods

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Corresponent

Altogether we have at least 8 "blackbird" species that regularly occur in the piney woods sometime during the year. These can assemble in huge flocks during the winter. Mixed flocks are made up of blackbirds, grackles, starlings, and cowbirds, collectively called "blackbirds".

The most common species, overall, is the Red-winged Blackbird discussed in a previous issue of The Piney Woods Journal. But, another, common, conspicuous species is the Common Grackle. In a mixed flock of blackbirds, grackles stick out like sore thumbs because they are so much bigger than the other birds.

Three species of grackles are found in our region - Common, Boat-tailed, and Great-tailed. The Common grackle is the most abundant but also the smallest. Males of all three species have long, conspicuous tails during the spring breeding season. Boat-tailed Grackles occur primarily in coastal areas along the Gulf of Mexico into Texas. Great-tailed Grackles are found inland and across the Texas and eastward to the Red River in Louisiana. Common Grackles pretty much occupy the whole region down to the coast.

Male Boat-tailed and Great-tailed grackles are black with spectacular tails during breeding season with that of the Great-tailed Grackle being the largest. Females of both species are dull, grayish brown and there is nothing unusual about the tails. Boat-tailed Grackles have dark eyes while Great-tailed Grackles have bright yellow eyes. The foreheads of Boat-tailed Grackles are steep while those of Great-tailed Grackles are distinctly sloping. Males of both species molt tail feathers following breeding season and sometimes lose them all at once. Such birds resemble flying black balls in the air.

John James Audubon referred to the Common Grackle as the "Purple Grakle" or "Common Crow-Blackbird". His description of the grackle's color is most interesting "...rich and varying tints, that no painter, however gifted, could imitate them. The coppery bronze, which in one light shews in its rich gloss, is, by the least motion of the bird, changed in a moment to brilliant and deep azure, and again, in the next light, becomes refulgent sapphire or emerald green...."

Common Grackles are omnivorous. They will follow plows to catch whatever is dislodged including grubs and mice. They readily wade into water to catch small fish, crawfish, aquatic insects and even pick leeches from turtles. Fish farmers who do not cover tanks with valuable fingerling fish or minnows can lose many fish to Common Grackles. They have been reported to attack nesting birds and eat the parents, eggs, and/or hatchlings. Garbage offers many feeding opportunities as well.

Audubon spoke eloquently about depredations of Common Grackles on corn crops. They will eat newly planted seeds and sprouting plants. Grackles are attracted to ripening ears of corn and, of course, eat ripened corn. It is thought that scare crows were originally put into pioneer corn fields to deter grackle depredation. Their overall impact on the region's corn crops can reach multi-million dollar levels.

Common Grackles have a hard keel on the inside of the upper mandible (bill) that they use to saw open acorns. They normally etch the outside of the narrow end and bite the nut open.

Common Grackles usually build large nests in the tops of trees. They will sometimes nest in cavities including bird houses and vacant woodpecker holes and may nest in open buildings especially barns.

Common Grackles make unpleasant croaks and rattles and clicks. They are hardly songsters but are certainly worth watching closely, if, for no other reason, to see the attractive iridescent colors. They can be hunted in some situations but check with state authorities before hunting them. However, Audubon didn't consider them to be very good table fare.