Birdwatching Canada

A voice for the northern birds

Grackle Diaper Patrol

male common grackle

Male common grackle

Common grackles are one of those largely overlooked backyard birds. In spite of the fact they are classed as songbirds, they don’t have a pretty singing voice and aren’t small and colorful.

At first glance, grackles are just plain black. Catch them in the sunlight however, and you’ll see iridescent black feathers on the body, a beautiful blue head on the males, and pale yellow eyes. Females are slightly smaller, and less glossy.

You’ll often find common grackles in large flocks, flying or foraging on lawns and fields. They strut on long legs, pecking for food rather than scratching. When resting they sit atop trees or on telephone lines, keeping up an incessant, raucous chattering.

If you have grackles in your yard, and if said grackles are nesting there, I doubt you can overlook the busy parents doing diaper duty.

Baby grackles produce fecal material that looks like miniature sandwich bags of poop. The parents grab these little bird diapers, and take them far away from the nest so predators can’t locate the baby birds. And drop them. Everywhere.

These clever birds consider water the perfect place to dump their cargo, as water washes away all traces. If you have a pond, a pool or even bird bath in your yard, this would be a good time to initiate regular cleanings. From the air, a glossy polish on a car apparently looks like water as well.

Native to open and semi-open areas east of the Rocky Mountains, the common grackle has adapted well to backyard bird feeders. Their size (13″) gives them first crack at the food, and I’ve even seen them intimidate squirrels into waiting for their dinner until the grackles are finished. The only species they don’t rule seems to be the blue jay, who is truly the lord of the feeder!

Common grackles are resourceful foragers. They sometimes follow plows to catch invertebrates and mice, wade into water to catch small fish, pick leeches off the legs of turtles, steal worms from American robins, raid nests, and kill and eat adult birds. They are the number one threat to corn crops, as they eat ripening corn and well as corn sprouts.

Their range expanded west as forests were cleared, and in some areas, they are now considered a pest by farmers because of their large numbers and fondness for corn and grain. Despite a currently robust population, a recent study by the National Audubon Society indicated that populations had declined by 61% to a population of 73 million from historic highs of over 190 million birds.

So even if they aren’t small and melodious, don’t overlook the common grackles in your yard. They have about 73 million relatives, and can be relied upon to visit your feeders sooner or later, and likely make a deposit in your pond.

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