Common Icterid, with Uncommon Beauty

Common Icterid, with Uncommon Beauty

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency; and array thyself with glory and beauty.    (Job 40:10).

CommonGrackle-bronze-morph.RhodeIslandBirdHunter.jpg

One of the most spectacular icterids, known for its iridescent shine, is the Common Grackle. As I observed years ago, it is a sobering thought to realize that God could have – if He had chosen to – made me (or you) a grackle!  [See “Of Grackles and Gratitude”]

One birdwatcher in Maryland describes the Common Grackle as follows:

The common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) is a widespread, common bird in the eastern United States.  Bigger than most other blackbirds [and robins], it stretches to about 12 inches from its long, tapered tail to its bill.  The black beak is prominent, more long than heavy.  Grackles stand on tall, stout black legs.  They prefer to forage on the ground but they will perch precariously if necessary to reach food.  The diet of the common grackle centers on grain, especially corn [i.e., maize].  Common grackles will descend upon a corn field from the moment it’s planted until it’s harvested.  Walking boldly behind planting equipment [!], they peck at newly sown seeds or unearthed grubs.  As the corn begins to tassel, they tear at maturing ears to eat growing cobs.  After the harvest, they descend [in a mob] like a dark cloud, eating any remaining kernels.  Common grackles do millions of dollars of damage [“robbing” cornfields] annually.  …  Though they prefer grains, grackles readily eat thistle, suet or sunflower seeds.  If those foods are not available, grackles will eat just about anything else on hand, including insects, frogs, mice, worms, other birds and even fish.  (Grackles wade into shallow water to nab schooling minnows.)  Discarded garbage [including fast-food litter] is another food source for these omnivores.

[Quoting Mike Burke, “Grackles’ Aggressive Behavior Not Helping its Survival – A Lesson?”, in CHESAPEAKE BAY JOURNAL, 27(3):39 (May 2017).

Ranging from the Midwest to the Eastern coastlands of America (plus some summer breeding ranges northward into central Canada), with most of their wintering range limited to the lands from the East Coast to the sates that straddle the Mississippi River Valley, the Common Grackle is known throughout most of America’s Lower 48 states.

But the Common Grackle’s iridescent plumage is its most conspicuous glory:

Common grackles display an odd geographic variation in color. Those south and east of the Appalachian Mountains [i.e., the so-called “Purple Grackle” variety] have an iridescent purple-blue head, purple belly, and blue-green tail.  Those north and west of the Eastern continental divide [i.e., the so-called “Bronze Grackle” variety of New England and west of the Appalachians] have blue-green heads and brassy bronze bodies.  From afar, all of the birds look black, but at closer distances the iridescent head is easily distinguishable from the glossy body.  Of course, there are exceptions, but generally the grackles in the Chesapeake [Bay] watershed have purple-blue heads.

[Quoting again from Mike Burke, “Grackles’ Aggressive Behavior Not Helping its Survival – A Lesson?”, in CHESAPEAKE BAY JOURNAL, 27(3):39 (May 2017).  Of course, these grackles are similar to the Boat-tailed Grackles that I’ve observed in Florida, and the Great-tailed Grackles that dominate Texas, but the tails of Common Grackles are not as conspicuously lengthy as those of its cousins in Florida and Texas.

CommonGrackle.BillHubick-photo

Like most grackles, the Common Grackle is noisy, gregarious (often congregating on power lines, or in trees near shopping centers), and confident (strutting about in parking lots, hunting for edibles discarded by humans).  Grackles are routinely bold, sometimes to the point of being aggressive.

But is this temperament-like habit a guarantee of the Common Grackle’s success?  Apparently not, according to the Breeding Bird Survey.

The North American Breeding Bird Survey is a joint venture of the U.S. Geological Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service, for monitoring avian populations, provided time-indexed data that is relied upon for bird conservation policy and programs.  Because these voracious blackbirds are an expensive nuisance to crop farmers, their recent population decline is unlikely to evoke lamentations by crop farmers.

Common grackles are in serious decline. Although they seem to be expanding farther westward and they are still [very much] abundant, the population has fallen nearly 60 percent since 1966, according to the [often-relied-upon] Breeding Bird Survey.  Ornithologists are thus far stumped about why the bird’s abundance has fallen so significantly.

[Quoting again from Mike Burke, “Grackles’ Aggressive Behavior Not Helping its Survival – A Lesson?”, in CHESAPEAKE BAY JOURNAL, 27(3):39 (May 2017).

Could it be habitat loss?  Of course, the Eastern half of the United States continues to convert its croplands to urban and suburban development —  the farmlands of America continue to disappear all too quickly (and the Common Grackle’s “robberies” are not the main cause!).  The cornfields that I knew as a boy (and sometimes worked in), growing up in different parts of Maryland, have substituted housing complexes and shopping centers for what were cornfields (and other crop fields).   If the habitat shrinks, and the readily available food supply shrink, is it any wonder that the population shrinks too?

Another possibility should be considered, too, the empirical science may be less than accurate –  i.e., it may be that the grackle population measurements are not as reliable as the “authoritative” data that they are advertised to be.  To illustrate this possibility, consider how the Atlantic Sturgeon was lamented for years – by Chesapeake Bay bioscientists who opined that it was nearly extirpated, only to be embarrassed to learn that they were looking for the anadromous fish at the wrong season of the year, phenologically speaking, and the fish was actually thriving in some of the Chesapeake Bay’s tributary waters!  [For details on that empirical science foible, see “Anadromous Fish ‘that Swam with Dinosaurs’ Neither Extinct Nor Extirpated,” Creation Research Society Quarterly, 51 (3): 207-208 (winter 2015).]

But to close on a simpler note: the Common Grackle may be common in many parts of America, yet its beautiful shimmering and glossy iridescent colors are anything but common.   Only God’s artistry could design and build a blackbird that reflects sunlight with such majestic magnificence.


FAIR USE PHOTO CREDITS:

Bill Hubick, Maryland: Common Grackle (bold pose & hungry pose)

Jason Major, Rhode Island:  Common Grackle perching (bronze variety)

 

 

Little Gray Feather

01:33. As the Robin flies away, the Grackle cries, “More!”

01:33. As the Robin flies away, the Grackle cries, “More!”

Little Gray Feather,
the Adopted Common Grackle Chick

One of the most bizarre anomalies in the world of ornithology I have ever witnessed was in May 2009.

It was in that month when my wife happened to look out a second floor bedroom window of our condo townhome in Aurora, Colorado and see two little boys carrying bird nests, prompting her to investigate. As it turns out, the two boys were innocently engaged in the exploration of birds’ nests they had discovered—apparently having observed adult birds flying to and from the nests. My wife lovingly explained to them that it wasn’t a good idea to move nests with eggs or chicks and suggested they return the nests to where they had found them.

However, by then the boys had already relocated at least two nests to a not-so-tall conifer at the southeast corner of the townhome complex. Apparently, they figured that by relocating the nests to lower, shorter branches, they could keep a better eye on things. The relatively short evergreen presently had a total three nests and a number of chicks had fallen to the ground. Not knowing what type of birds she was dealing with or what nests the chicks on the ground had fallen out of, my wife donned a pair of gloves and placed the fallen chicks back into two of the nests. When I returned home from work, she requested I examine the situation. Upon doing so, I found that she had mistakenly placed Common Grackle chicks with American Robin chicks and a few chicks had again fallen out of their nests—one to the ground, a couple of others onto branches. It was a problematic scenario for all parties involved, especially the chicks.

01:09. Oh, what joy as the Robin emerges on the west side of the nest with something substantial in its mouth.

Appearances suggested we were dealing with two broods of Robins and one of Grackles, both types of birds being common to the complex. Presuming the highest nest in the tree to be that of a Grackle, I placed the Grackle chicks in that one and divided the Robins evenly between the other two lower nests, holding out little hope for a positive outcome.

In less than two days all chicks died except for one: a Grackle. And soon, the nest had become tipped. I adjusted it so the sole survivor wouldn’t fall out.

Now, one would think an adult Robin would know the difference between one of its own and a stranger. Yet, to our amazement, a pair of mating Robins quickly adopted the baby Grackle and took to raising it as their own. This caused me to think that the nest had actually been built by the mother Robin. We named the chick Little Gray Feather and observed its development into June until it left the nest and was capable of very short flights while still being tended to by its adoptive parents.

Using a Panasonic Lumix-DMC FZ8 digital camera, on May 29, 2009, I took a video of the Grackle in the nest and one of its adoptive Robin parents feeding it and cleaning up after it. Following are photos captured from the video, arranged in chronological order from left to right:

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Little Gray Feather
Copyright ©2015 Dan Vaisanen


Lee’s Addition:

What an amazing story and the photos and video to go along with it. Thanks Dan for sharing this with us. Dan Vaisanen is an acquaintance of James J. S. Johnson.

Other birds have fed babies that are not their own, but this was all done by accident. It is interesting that one species, the Robins, were willing to feed another species’ baby, but that the Grackles would not do the same for the Robin babies. Must be a truth there somewhere.

“So then, whatever you desire that others would do to and for you, even so do also to and for them, for this is (sums up) the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12 AMP)

Deceit:

Good Behavior:

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Vol 2, #6 – The Bronzed Grackle

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) "Bronzed Grackle" for Birds Illustrated

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) “Bronzed Grackle” for Birds Illustrated

From col. Chi. Acad. Sciences. Copyrighted by
Nature Study Pub. Co., 1897, Chicago.

THE BRONZED GRACKLE.

You can call me the Crow Blackbird, little folks, if you want to. People generally call me by that name.

I look something like the Crow in the March number of Birds, don’t I? My dress is handsomer than his, though. Indeed I am said to be a splendid looking bird, my bronze coat showing very finely in the trees.

The Crow said Caw, Caw, Caw! to the little boys and girls. That was his way of talking. My voice is not so harsh as his. I have a note which some people think is quite sweet; then my throat gets rusty and I have some trouble in finishing my tune. I puff out my feathers, spread my wings and tail, then lifting myself on the perch force out the other notes of my song. Maybe you have seen a singer on the stage, instead of a perch, do the same thing. Had to get on his tip-toes to reach a high note, you know.

Like the Crow I visit the cornfields, too. In the spring when the man with the plow turns over the rich earth, I follow after and pick up all the grubs and insects I can find. They would destroy the young corn if I didn’t eat them. Then, when the corn grows up, I, my sisters, and my cousins, and my aunts drop down into the field in great numbers. Such a picnic as we do have! The farmers don’t seem to like it, but certainly they ought to pay us for our work in the spring, don’t you think? Then I think worms as a steady diet are not good for anybody, not even a Crow, do you?

We like nuts, too, and little crayfish which we find on the edges of ponds. No little boy among you can beat us in going a-nutting.

We Grackles are a very sociable family, and like to visit about among our neighbors. Then we hold meetings and all of us try to talk at once. People say we are very noisy at such times, and complain a good deal. They ought to think of their own meetings. They do a great deal of talking at such times, too, and sometimes break up in a fight.

How do I know? Well, a little bird told me so.

Yes, we build our nest as other birds do; ours is not a dainty affair; any sort of trash mixed with mud will do for the outside. The inside we line with fine dry grass. My mate does most of the work, while I do the talking. That is to let the Robin and other birds know I am at home, and they better not come around.
Yours,
Mr. Bronzed Grackle.


THE BRONZED GRACKLE.

First come the Blackbirds clatt’rin in tall trees,
And settlin’ things in windy congresses,
Queer politicians though, for I’ll be skinned
If all on ’em don’t head against the wind.
—Lowell.

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Y the more familiar name of Crow Blackbird this fine but unpopular bird is known, unpopular among the farmers for his depredations in their cornfields, though the good he does in ridding the soil, even at the harvest season, of noxious insects and grubs should be set down to his credit.

The Bronzed Grackle or Western Crow Blackbird, is a common species everywhere in its range, from the Alleghenies and New England north to Hudson Bay, and west to the Rocky Mountains. It begins nesting in favorable seasons as early as the middle of March, and by the latter part of April many of the nests are finished. It nests anywhere in trees or bushes or boughs, or in hollow limbs or stumps at any height. A clump of evergreen trees in a lonely spot is a favorite site, in sycamore groves along streams, and in oak woodlands. It is by no means unusual to see in the same tree several nests, some saddled on horizontal branches, others built in large forks, and others again in holes, either natural or those made by the Flicker. A long list of nesting sites might be given, including Martin-houses, the sides of Fish Hawk’s nests, and in church spires, where the Blackbirds’ “clatterin’” is drowned by the tolling bell.

The nest is a coarse, bulky affair, composed of grasses, knotty roots mixed with mud, and lined with fine dry grass, horse hair, or sheep’s wool. The eggs are light greenish or smoky blue, with irregular lines, dots and blotches distributed over the surface. The eggs average four to six, though nests have been found containing seven.

The Bronze Grackle is a bird of many accomplishments. He does not hop like the ordinary bird, but imitates the Crow in his stately walk, says one who has watched him with interest. He can pick beech nuts, catch cray fish without getting nipped, and fish for minnows alongside of any ten-year-old. While he is flying straight ahead you do not notice anything unusual, but as soon as he turns or wants to alight you see his tail change from the horizontal to the vertical—into a rudder. Hence he is called keel-tailed.

The Grackle is as omnivorous as the Crow or Blue Jay, without their sense of humor, and whenever opportunity offers will attack and eat smaller birds, especially the defenseless young. His own meet with the like fate, a fox squirrel having been seen to emerge from a hole in a large dead tree with a young Blackbird in its mouth. The Squirrel was attacked by a number of Blackbirds, who were greatly excited, but it paid no attention to their demonstrations and scampered off into the wood with his prey. Of their quarrels with Robins and other birds much might be written. Those who wish to investigate their remarkable habits will do well to read the acute and elaborate observations of Mr. Lyndes Jones, in a recent Bulletin of Oberlin College. He has studied for several seasons the remarkable Bronze Grackle roost on the college campus at that place, where thousands of these birds congregate from year to year, and, though more or less offensive to some of the inhabitants, add considerably to the attractiveness of the university town.

The breeding habitat is open and semi-open areas across North America east of the Rocky Mountains. The nest is a well-concealed cup in dense trees (particularly pine) or shrubs, usually near water; sometimes, the Common Grackle will nest in cavities or in man-made structures. It often nests in colonies, some being quite large. Bird houses are also a suitable nesting site. There are 4-7 eggs.

This bird is a permanent resident in much of its range. Northern birds migrate in flocks to the southeastern United States.

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Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) by Raymond Barlow

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) by Raymond Barlow

Summary:

BRONZED GRACKLE.Quiscalus quiscula æneus. (Now Common Grackle)

Range—Eastern North America from the Alleghenies and New England north to Hudson Bay, west to the Rocky Mountains.

Nest—In sycamore trees and oak woodlands a coarse bulky structure of grasses, knotty roots, mixed with mud, lined with horse hair or wool.

Eggs—Four to six, of a light greenish or smoky-blue, with lines, dots, blotches and scrawls on the surface.


Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) ©©Eric Begin

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) ©©Eric Begin at Flickr

Lee’s Addition:

Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Mat 6:26 NKJV)

The “Bronzed Grackle” is actually a subspecies of the Common Grackle. They are in the Icteridae – Oropendolas, Orioles & Blackbirds Family which has 108 members (IOC 3.4). In that family, there are 11 different Grackles. What a beautiful creation from the Lord. When this bird is out in the sun, it just shines.

The LORD make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; (Num 6:25 NKJV)

Make Your face shine upon Your servant, And teach me Your statutes. (Psa 119:135 NKJV)

Adult Common Grackles measure from 28 to 34 cm (11 to 13 in) in length, span 14–18 in (36–46 cm) across the wings and weigh 74–142 g (2.6–5.0 oz).[2] Common grackles are less sexually dimorphic than larger grackle species but the differences between the sexes can still be noticeable. The male, which averages 4.3 oz (122 g), is larger than the female, at an average of 3.3 oz (94 g).

Adults have a long, dark bill, pale yellowish eyes and a long tail; its feathers appear black with purple, green or blue iridescence on the head, and primarily bronze sheen in the body plumage. The adult female, beyond being smaller, is usually less iridescent; her tail in particular is shorter, and unlike the males, does not keel in flight and is brown with no purple or blue gloss. The juvenile is brown with dark brown eyes.

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) Chick ©WikiC

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) Chick ©WikiC

The common grackle forages on the ground, in shallow water or in shrubs; it will steal food from other birds. It is omnivorous, eating insects, minnows, frogs, eggs, berries, seeds, grain and even small birds and mice. Grackles at outdoor eating areas often wait eagerly until someone drops some food. They will rush forward and try to grab it, often snatching food out of the beak of another bird. Grackles prefer to eat from the ground at birdfeeders, making scattered seed an excellent choice of food for them. In shopping centers, grackles can be regularly seen foraging for bugs, especially after a lawn trimming.

Along with some other species of grackles, the common grackle is known to practice “anting,” rubbing insects on its feathers to apply liquids such as formic acid secreted by the insects. (See Birdwatching – Anting)

This bird’s song is particularly harsh, especially when these birds, in a flock, are calling. Songs vary from, year round “Chewink Chewink” to a more complex breeding season “Ooo whew,whew,whew,whew,whew” call that gets faster and faster and ends with a loud “Crewhewwhew!” It also occasionally sounds like a power line buzzing. The grackle can also mimic the sounds of other birds or even humans, though not as precisely as the mockingbird, which is known to share its habitat in the Southeastern United States.

By Chris Parrish xeno-canto

In the breeding season, males tip their heads back and fluff up feathers to display and keep other males away. This same behavior is used as a defensive posture to attempt to intimidate predators. Male common grackles are less aggressive toward one another, and more cooperative and social, than the larger boat-tailed grackle species.

Grackles tend to congregate in large groups, popularly referred to as a plague. This enables them to detect birds invading their territory, and predators, which are mobbed en masse to deter the intruders.

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula quiscula) - Purple Form By Dan'sPix

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula quiscula) – Purple Form By Dan’sPix

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Birds Illustrated by Color Photography – Revisited

The above article is an article in the monthly serial for October 1897 “designed to promote Knowledge of Bird-Live.” These include Color Photography, as they call them, today they are drawings. There are at least three Volumes that have been digitized by Project Gutenberg.

To see the whole series of – Birds Illustrated by Color Photography – Revisited

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(Information from Wikipedia and other internet sources, with editing)

Next Article – The Ring-necked Pheasant

The Previous Article – The Verdin

Falling Plates

Links:

Common Grackle – All About Birds

Common Grackle – Wikipedia

Common Grackle – National Geographic

Common Grackle – IBC Video

Common Grackle – xeno-canto

Icteridae – Oropendolas, Orioles & Blackbirds Family

Birdwatching – Anting)

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