The Poets’ Birds ~ Great-Tailed Grackle

Great-Tailed Grackle ~ Quiscalus mexicanus

Boat-tailed, Common, and Great-Tailed Grackles appear across Texas, their populations ebbing and flowing as the seasons change. Chattering among themselves, providing amusement to humans during mating competitions, and generally showing off to one another, they’re exceedingly social birds. 

In fall and winter, enormous flocks of Great-Tailed Grackles gather in ‘roost trees’ that sometimes contain thousands of birds; their morning flights show up on radar as expanding ‘doughnuts’ called roost rings.

Other birds, especially Purple Martins, often create the same effect. In Houston, there are locations where the various birds’ morning routines are so well known that people click on the radar just to watch and record. (For a beautiful animated .gif of a Houston roost ring, click here.)

Great-tailed Grackles don’t limit themselves to trees, of course. They’ll also fill electrical lines in the early evening or, in the case of my neighborhood, take over our local HEB grocery store. When the birds move in, there’s nothing to be done but laugh. They line the store’s rooftop and perch atop cart returns, but they also wander under and over cars, sit on SUV luggage racks, ride on grocery carts being pushed by bemused shoppers, and search through the outside garden displays for the occasional insect.

Poet Susan Elizabeth Howe has perfectly described their behavior and captured something of their mysterious appeal in her poem titled, “What Is a Grackle?” I don’t think she visited my supermarket while writing it, but she certainly could have.

A comfort common to Southwest desert
parking lots, a familiar, a messenger,
an overlooked angel oiled by asphalt,
consolation of the casino, supermarket
spiritual guide picking at a free-today
hot dog, a dropped grape or lentil,
its purple-green head iridescent,
its long keel of a tail.
Black birds but not blackbirds
with their showy epaulettes blood-red
as a war field. Grackles glint
like lacquered ebony, the females brunhildas,
if by brunhilda you mean “brown-headed,”
not the German “ready for battle.” Blind
to centuries of borders, of battles, they waddle
stiff-legged at your feet, a janitorial sweep
to their tails, checking cart tires and light poles
for moths, beetles, singing their seven songs —
slides, whistles, wheezes, catcalls, chirps,
murmurs, clucks — to console you
for your losses: stolen cars, mortgage
payments spun to mist at a roulette table,
the beloved who breathed fire and scorched
your wedding clothes. Folly, wreckage,
they mutter, down among the packs
of backerboard and spackle. We’ve fallen
from Mayan temples. In a past life
we prophesied. In a past life we were gods.

 

Comments always are welcome.

91 thoughts on “The Poets’ Birds ~ Great-Tailed Grackle

    1. You might be less tolerant of them because of sheer numbers; the Cornell ornithology site mentions that there are “flocks of up to half a million occurring in sugarcane fields in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley.” That’s a lot of birds, and I’m sure there’s some spillover into your back yard. That’s all right. Even if you’re not so fond of the grackles, you still can enjoy the roost rings on radar. Bats produce them, too.

  1. At sunset Saturday, we started a drive south which neared the Iowa River. In the sky was a river of Starlings stretching for over a mile that we could see, maybe more. Their murmurations are beautiful.

    Very nice radar images. We also see some echos of the flocks along the Miss. River flyway.

    1. I don’t remember seeing a true murmuration here, but the size of the migrating flocks can be impressive, and their wheeling motion is fascinating to watch. Migrating raptors will show up on our radar, and occasionally swarming dragonflies. Dragonflies don’t always migrate in large groups, but when they do, it’s something to see.

  2. The grackles do love HEB and I can attest for their presence at my local HEB. In years past the flocks arrived in late afternoon and lined the power lines near the store. Then at sunset they flocked to the small live oak trees where they spent the night. A few years back, HEB cut most of the oaks down, I suppose in self defense because droppings were just about everywhere including the shopping carts that were parked in the outside bays. They are after all, a native species and are protected except under certain circumstances when they are destroying crops in south Texas. Actually I have never had a problem with them at my feeders and I suppose that is because I have lots of trees and grackles seem to prefer open spaces.

    1. Just this morning, I saw a photo posted of a single grackle in an Oklahoma parking lot. Perhaps he was a scout, and the rest of the crew will follow.

      My HEB is relatively new — perhaps five or six years old now — and I don’t remember seeing any trees in the parking lot, even around the perimeter. It may be that the lesson was learned, and now the chain avoids planting in order to prevent the need for cutting down.

      It’s interesting that some people have feeders that attract them, and others don’t. I wonder if it has to do with what’s on offer. I’ve never seen a single one here, but I don’t use mixed seed that includes corn. When I did a quick search to see what grackles like to eat, I was surprised to see so many articles about how to prevent grackles, starlings, doves, bluejays, and sparrows away from coming to feeders. Some of the language was, shall we say, less than charitable. Personally, I enjoy them all — despite a slight feeling of ambivalence when the neighborhood hawk comes by for dinner.

    1. It took me some time to finally see how the feet of many birds are designed for perching, with toes wrapping around from both front and back. On the other hand, the black-bellied whistling duck perches, too, but its feet resemble oversized spatulas: no separate toes there! It is great fun to watch birds like this in a strong wind; they’ve learned how to cope.

    1. That’s a good part of the fun of crossword puzzles: learning those new words, and learning something of the reality that underlies them. You’d like the grackles; they’re shameless and spunky, and their courtship displays are hilarious. And loud? You always know when they’re around.

    1. They are. Some people see them as the same sort of nuisance as squirrels at a feeder, and I’ve read that they can be a bit overwhelming when they collect around agricultural fields, but they’re great fun to watch because of their personalities.

  3. Lovely poem, but I am not sure how she gets “epaulettes blood red” on a grackle. As for them massing in large numbers who are we to pass judgement from our cities of countless millions of cramped and desperate poor? Long live the grackles, I say!

    1. Ah, the poet got one past you. In the lines “Black birds but not blackbirds / with their showy epaulettes blood-red” she was drawing a distinction between the black grackle and red-winged blackbirds, which makes the reference to the blood-red epaulettes understandable. If she’d chosen to add a bit of punctuation (e.g., “Black birds but not black-birds”) it would have been more obvious.

      I say long live the grackles, too. I love them as much as bluejays and squirrels, which I suppose says as much about me as about those creatures.

    1. While they aren’t as melodious as the songbirds or as colorful as some, their sleek iridescence makes them remarkably attractive. Eye color is one distinguishing characteristic, as well as the shape of the tail, but they’re all great.

  4. It’s impressive that grackles’ “morning flights show up on radar as expanding ‘doughnuts’ called roost rings.” Just yesterday evening, as we approached the block on US 183 where grackles in other years have gathered on the power lines and in trees in great numbers, I wondered if we’d soon be seeing them, now that cold weather can’t be far away.

    The “consolation of the casino” confirms that Susan Elizabeth Howe wasn’t thinking of your local H.E.B. because we don’t (yet) have casinos in Texas. And how about the thought of “mortgage
    payments spun to mist at a roulette table”?

    I also think Howe may have visited one or another of the baby-name sort of websites. For example, a site called The Bump gives the same etymology for Brunhilda that she does, ‘ready for battle.’ However, a more scholarly source like A Dictionary of First Names, by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges, says that brun meant ‘armour, protection, and brun meant ‘battle.’

    1. Between the roost rings, raptor migrations, bat departures from caves, and the occasional dragonfly swarm, there’s always something to see on radar. I’m sure all the National Weather Service offices follow the practice of ours; when something interesting shows up, they point it out. The ability to save radar loops is especially helpful for people who can’t sit around and watch radar every day.

      I thought about your past photos of the birds when I was writing this. The birds were at our HEB for only two days, but it’s possible they’ll be back.

      It’s both true and not true that we don’t have casinos. While Texas law forbids them, the Kickapoo tribe’s Lucky Eagle Casino in Eagle Pass survived its legal battles with the state and is currently operating slot machines, poker and bingo. Naskila Gaming in Livingston, owned by the Alabama-Coushatta, has been in and out of court, but Texas lost in federal court in August. 2021, and now that casino’s advertisements are all over Houston radio. I’ve always grinned at their choice of words; they offer ‘gaming,’ not gambling. From what I hear, they do a brisk business. Not everyone wants to drive to Lake Charles and gamble on an accident-free trip on I-10.

      1. I knew about the Cherokee casinos across the border in Oklahoma but not about the Kickapoo and Alabama-Coushatta casinos you mentioned. Once again I’ll say live and learn—but not gamble, which on average has to be a losing proposition.

  5. I admit to being a bit thankful that the only grackles I ever see are at the local Walmart parking lot. We rarely see them here on the edge of or in the woodlands. I do find them rather entertaining to observe. They’re clever about picking insects from the grills of vehicles and their calls and cackles are hilarious. The way they strut around and flamboyantly spread tail and wing feathers can be quite a show. I suppose, though, if I had to listen to that noise all day, and in great numbers, I might go mad.

    1. Believe me — in any contest, the laughing gulls would put the cackling grackles to shame. When the gulls get started, we can count on about a month of the loudest, most raucous noise you can imagine while those boys try to out-compete one another. I mostly don’t hear the grackles any more, even though they collect around the marinas where I work. They like to nest in the palm trees, so there’s plenty of opportunity to watch their displays and listen to their chatter and shrieks, but it’s mostly background noise rather than the over-the-top parking lot racket.

    1. You and I are alike in that respect. I enjoy the grackles, as well as the squirrels, raccoons, and bluejays. Their personalities are so distinct, and their intelligence is obvious. Their willingness to enter into relationships with us is charming, and if they’re destructive from time to time, they at least provide fodder for some great stories.

      I remember that Texas Monthly article. I have a piece I saved from the wonderful Houston Chronicle columnist Leon Hale, who had quite a fondness for them, too. You can read that here if you like. Substitute ‘gull’ for ‘grackle,’ and the story would do just as well for Galveston.

  6. That poem is perfect. Black headed but not black headed. We have a lot of grackles at the ditch and in fact, one of my favorite paintings from last year was a grackle reflecting the blue of its black in the light.

    So glad you shared this one. It makes me smile.

    1. I think grackles would be satisfying birds to paint, but also difficult. Catching that iridescence is hard even in a photo. I’m trying to remember if you posted it on your blog. I did go over to the Gypsy Caravan and found Gary Grackle there; is that the one? It’s wonderful!

  7. Two things I learned from your post today. There are birds in Texas by the name of grackles. And there are formations that birds form in flight that are called roost rings.

    1. I think those roost rings are fascinating. It’s such fun to get up, make coffee, and then watch the birds get up — on radar! It’s a different way of seeing and understanding their lives, and it really is a marvel.

  8. That poem is fabulous! I’m trying to get some inspiration for our annual Christmas poem (this might not be quite the inspiration I’m looking for, but we’ll see!).

    I love grackles – they’re so pretty & I think their name gets people to dislike them more than they would otherwise. Of course, they DO clean out a bird feeder pretty quickly, but they’re not around all the time, so like you say, there’s nothing to be done but laugh.

    1. I think you have a new avatar — very nice. I’m glad you like the poem, and I hope it at least gets those poetic juices flowing. I feel like time is rushing past — Advent’s early this year, and having it come the weekend of the Thanksgiving holiday is a bit much. But, we can’t slow it down, so we might as well get with it.

      I’ve never had a single grackle at my feeders; from what I hear, I should count myself lucky. Still, I get to see them and appreciate their antics in other places — I’m glad.

  9. Oh, my! Our Maine grackles are nothing like that. They are much shyer and not nearly as beautiful. Wonderful iridescent blue on the picture you took. From the poem this the line that struck me: In a past life we were gods.

    1. I learned just tonight that there’s an Aztec connection for this bird; that’s how the specific epithet came to be mexicanus. It was native in Mexico, but slowly has worked its way north: slowly, like over five or six centuries. That background helps to explain the god-reference. More study is needed!

  10. We have plenty of grackles around here. While not Corvids, they do exhibit a lot of Corvid traits. They are social, intelligent opportunists, which probably explains their fascination with HEB. They’re looking for anything they can beg, borrow or steal to eat.

    They have also been seen holding ‘funerals’ for deceased flock members, much like crows do.

    I enjoy watching them (they are so saucy!) but my Dad had issues with some on vacation one time. They roosted in a tree just outside their hotel bedroom, waking them up at the crack of dawn with their raucous hollering. Not very restful, that’s for sure.

    1. You’re right about their intelligence, and about their experience of grief after the death of one of their own. I’ve actually witnessed that, and wrote about it. Reposting that poem might make a nice followup to this one.

      I have sympathy for your dad. Grackles never have bothered me, but in my old apartment, there was a mockingbird that insisted on singing every spring, beginning about 3 or 4 in the morning. Its favored tree was in the corner where two buildings intersected, and it sounded like it was singing in an echo chamber. I always was pleased when it finally found a mate — or got tired of singing.

      I’ve never taken the time or trouble to video ours, but there are people who have, and they’ve given us treats like this.

      1. Maybe Hitchcock watched our grackles before writing and producing the birds! Here’s a limerick I produced for another commenter this morning:

        “To tackle a grackle, it seems,
        might best happen only in dreams.
        Their throaty dark cackles
        raise up human hackles,
        while their eye with a strange glitter gleams.”

    1. I always learn something from my posts, too — and I love that! Tonight’s new tidbit involves an Aztec connection for this bird. It was imported into Mexico by an Aztec emperor. Then, after acclimating, it made its way north, and now it’s all over our grocery store parking lots. Obviously, there’s going to have to be another post about this bird, once I figure it all out.

    1. Well, look at you! What a treat to see you, Wendy! I hope you do post some photos — I’ve been thinking about your blog, and missing it.

      I hope all’s settled down for you now. I know there still are problems over there, but Thanksgiving’s here again, and we sure enough have a lot to be thankful for!

  11. I’ve never been fond of grackles. They’re bossy, noisy, and opinionated! Still, what an interesting poem, and they do “glint like lacquered ebony.”

    1. Bossy, noisy, and opinionated? You bet! That’s part of what I like about them. I don’t think I’d be so kindly disposed toward them if we had the enormous flocks year round, but when those show up, it’s a little like the circus coming to town. Everybody wants at least one look at them.

      I liked that line about the ebony, too. Laquerware appeals to me, but I’d never thought to compare a bird to it.

  12. I think they are beautiful birds, but we don’t get them in the thousands like you do. I often wonder what their lives looked like prior to adapting to the human-dominated environment. But adapt they have. I would love to see a video of them at the supermarket. The gif file was pretty cool, too.

    1. Your wish is my command. Here’s a view of them decorating the wires in San Marcos,, and here’s a parking lot view. I laughed at the commenters who said, “HEB, right?” I’m not sure the second one is HEB; I think it might have been a Kroger. The effect is the same.

      They sure have adapted. The various birding sites say there’s no need to worry about their numbers. Sometimes it seems as though they are plotting to take over the world.

      1. Thanks for the links. Wow, I cannot believe there are so many, kind of cool! They seem like they aren’t bothered by humans hardly at all. The landowners must have to power wash everything constantly, whew!

        1. It’s odd — I haven’t noticed them being nearly as messy as the gulls and herons. I never find droppings on my car, etc., when the large groups are around, and I never hear people complain about them like they do the herons. Maybe I’m just lucky, or not paying attention.

  13. Grackles are generalists. Like those other ubiquitous generalists, the raccoons, opossums, rats, coyotes and a certain species of Hominidae, their diet is omnivorous and varied. Generalists are like switch hitters in baseball. They can hit whatever life pitches at them.

    1. That’s right. Cracked corn? Great. Hamburger bun from the fast food joint? Even better. Cat food? You bet. And they’ll fish, too. I was astonished the first time I saw a grackle pull a shad from the marina waters and chow down, but I’ve since read that they do, indeed, consume fish, and even small frogs. Sushi!

  14. I’ve always admired Charles Dickens’ deftness in creating names for his characters – Bumble, Pecksniff, The Artful Dodger, Gradgrind, etc. and Scrooge of course. Grackle seems like a perfect name for these noisy chatterboxes.

    1. Combine Dickens and Poe, and you might end up with this:

      To tackle a grackle, it seems,
      might best happen only in dreams.
      Their throaty dark cackles
      raise up human hackles,
      while their eye with a strange glitter gleams.

  15. I’ve always loved the eyes of grackles, how they stand out so strikely against their dark, shiny feathers. I’ve seen them flock around here, most often mixed in with lots of starlings, but I’ve never seen them riding on shopping carts. That’s a scene I would so love to see.

    1. Grackles are like raccoons and squirrels in one respect; they always seem to be saying, “You think that’s good? Hold my beer…” In Austin, there’s at least a suggestion of why they want to ride those shopping carts. How else are they going to get into the store?

    1. Isn’t that glorious? Sometimes they seem to be a flat black, but if the light catches them just right, the males can be extremely handsome. It’s like catching a glimpse of a cormorant’s eye in just the right light; they become the most beautiful turquoise in the world.

  16. Linda, thanks for sharing some many details about the grackles. I am sure I’ve witnessed some here in Ohio without even knowing it. There overwhelming numbers in certain locales reminds me of Hitchcock’s film, “The Birds.”

    1. They’re impressive in groups, there’s no question about that. Since experiencing their huge flocks here in Texas, I’ve wondered whether they might have inspired Hitchcock. I’ve found mockingbirds to be more aggressive, but they make up for bad behavior with their songs.!

    1. I found this excellent primer on using radar to track biological events, including bird migrations and roosting patterns; you might be interested in it. I knew that dragonflies show up from time to time, but I was astonished to see mayflies on radar, too.

      There are so many great lines in the poem. I especially liked “a janitorial sweep to their tails.” That’s it, exactly.

      1. I liked all of her poem, but “an overlooked angel oiled by asphalt” really struck me as wonderfully descriptive.
        A few years ago, so many Painted Lady butterflies migrated through the Pikes Peak region that they showed up on radar. Fascinating!

        1. Butterflies! I don’t think I’ve read about those showing up on radar, but it makes perfect sense that they would. Painted Ladies are one of my favorites; I can’t imagine the excitement of seeing a migration like that.

    1. That does bring up an image, doesn’t it? I was fascinated by lacquerware when I was a kid; if it came inlaid with pearl, all the better! If the bird was done in lacquerware, its eye could be the pearl.

    1. Those roost rings are fun, for sure. I’m certain you could find the same phenomenon there, but all of the articles I found with a quick look were scientific papers. I did learn that the first example of roost rings being recognized on radar was in 1940, in Hampshire.

  17. I’ve always thought their name sounded like a food. Maybe because of the similar sounding apple brand.
    As Bob mentioned, they (the Common Grackle) come to our feeders and empty them quickly. Most often upon first arrival in spring they are massed with Brown-headed Cowbirds and often Killdeer as well. Between the two our bird food budget swells. But they are beautiful and somewhat iridescent in the sun so we enjoy them just the same.

    1. Now I’m curious: which apple are you thinking of? There are a lot of varieties in the northeast that we never see, so it may be that you were referencing one I’ve never tried (or heard of, for that matter).

      I really was surprised to read that your grackles mix with Killdeer. I always see those birds in pairs or very small groups, and never mixed with other species. Of course I’ve never seen a grackle at a feeder, either. Maybe there are so many grocery store and restaurant parking lots in the area they don’t have to lower themselves to plain old feeders; they get gourmet meals elsewhere!

      1. I’ve never had one but they got noticed by “Food and Wine”. I get Fujis for Mary Beth’s lunches with yogurt but I don’t think either of us is interested in a grape flavored (infused) apple. And of course there is also Snapple which could create any flavor.

        I got my species mixed up although how I could mistake a killdeer for a red-winged blackbird will forever remain a mystery. Maybe a senior moment. Killdeers do arrive here around the same time though. I don’t think Grackles, along with their friends the cowbird, red winged blackbird, and European starlings, are very popular at feeders as they are messy eaters. The squirrels however are big fans and clean up the mess below.

        1. Ah, ha. The only fruit I’ve ever infused with anything was a watermelon, and you can imagine what went into that. The thought of a grape-infused apple is just odd; I’m not sure how well I could grapple with that!

          I managed a nice series of photos of killdeer recently. They’re one of my favorite birds. To me, their babies always look like golf balls on legs — and fast? My goodness, those babies can run, and they do it only a few hours out of the egg.

            1. I have some new killdeer photos I’ll be posting, but I’ve never managed any of the babies. The only ones I ever got were several years ago, and I still hadn’t quite grasped the concept of ‘fast shutter speed.’ Maybe I’ll get some of the babes this spring.

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