On the last day of October, a flock of blackbirds lands on top of a tree behind me as I sit on Coyote Bench. Later, on the Vernal Pond Bench, I hear and then see an enormous blackbird flock as it alights on nearby oak trees and then erupts overhead in a wheeling flock of several hundred. Judging by the sounds I hear, I think it contains mostly European starlings, red-winged blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds as well as common grackles, but I can’t get a close, long look at them before they fly off.
I remain still as a small flock appears and a few linger in the treetops while the others move on. I see bright yellow eyes and long tails. They are common grackles with a few smaller, bright-eyed birds that may be rusty blackbirds. Most blackbird flocks are mixed during migration, and common grackles are often part of red-winged blackbird, European starling and brown-headed cowbird flocks.
Later, I learned that common grackles, nicknamed “crow blackbirds,” use the hard keel of the inside of their upper mandibles to saw open acorns, scoring the outside of the acorns’ narrow ends and biting them open. Since we have had a bumper crop of acorns, I imagine they were feeding on their way south.
Common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) breed in Canada from British Columbia in the west to Newfoundland in the east and south across the eastern and midwestern United States to the Rocky Mountains. They are partial migrants within North America, averaging 330 miles southward, and most spend their winters in the Mississippi Valley where grain fields are plentiful. Still, although they are abundant regular migrants in Pennsylvania, flocks may linger in the intensively farmed Piedmont region or at birdfeeders filled with grain.
Farther south and east they form a part of communal roosts during the winter that may contain as many as a million birds. They are partial to evergreen trees near agricultural areas and are notorious in farming circles for their love of grains, especially corn. They eat ripening corn as well as corn sprouts and are considered the number one threat to corn crops.
Common grackles are handsome birds, about the size of mourning doves, and only appear to be black. But seen closely in the sunlight, their heads are a glossy purple and their bodies a bronze-toned iridescent. They have long legs and long, keeled tails, flat heads, and bold yellow eyes. They waddle around on their legs and peck for food like chickens.
Because they sometimes eat other birds, eggs, and nestlings, many birdwatchers aren’t fond of them. These clever blackbirds have been known to steal worms from robins, follow plows to catch insects and rodents, pick leeches off the legs of turtles, wade into water to catch fish and even soak dry bread in water before eating it. Common grackles are omnivorous birds that thrive in our human-made environment and even pick through garbage.
On the other hand, they also eat wild fruits, tree seeds, beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, spiders, and salamanders, with insects forming 25 to 30% of their animal diet. However, their year round diet does average 70 to 75% seeds and fruits, most of which are agricultural grains and seeds.
Like other blackbirds, they are songbirds even though most descriptions of their songs use words such as “harsh,” “squeaky,” and “nasal”—songs ornithologists believe they learn from adults in winter roosts. But songbird expert Donald Kroodsma, in his Listening to a Continent Sing, writes, “I would sit quietly in a colony, savoring their ‘rusty hinge’ songs, the croaking, squawky, far-from-musical, third-of-a-second readle-eaks to my naked ears, knowing that they’re full of exquisite detail when slowed down. I hear each bird with its slightly different song, how females sing, too, how pairs in a flock are identifiable by how rapidly they respond to each other’s song, how intimate exchanges within the colony are mediated with all those harsh chack and chaa and jit calls.”
The male common grackles arrive on their breeding grounds a week before the females. Here in Pennsylvania they may arrive as early as the last week in February during mild winters and as late as the second week in April.
Once the females arrive, pair formation begins with groups of males flying after a slow-flying female, a male chasing a female at high speed, and a male and female flying slowly next to each other. Eventually, they pair up and mate.
The female selects the nest site, but she may change her mind in the middle of nest-building and start all over in another place. Common grackles often nest in a colony as small as 10 pairs and as large as 200 or they may nest singly. Usually, they nest at the top of evergreen trees near agricultural fields, residential areas, or even woodlands. Almost always they locate near water.
Here on our mountain we have at least one pair nesting somewhere along our hollow stream, and I suspect they nest either atop a white pine or hemlock tree, although some grackles choose deciduous trees and even shrubs as nest sites. Occasionally, they will nest in tree cavities, birdhouses, barns, or in the massive, occupied nests of ospreys or great blue herons, feasting on the leftovers that fall from the larger birds’ nests.
Nest-building in Pennsylvania has been documented as early as March 16 and as late as June 30, but from April 18 to May 28 are the most common dates.
Female common grackles build their nests, sometimes aided by the males. The nests are bulky cups, six to nine inches across, of twigs, leaves, and grass with paper and string if they’re near human habitations, plastered with mud inside and lined with fine grasses. They can build their nests in as little as a week and as long as a month and a half in the case of one dawdling female.
They then lay one to seven eggs of variable colors from almost white to light blue, pearl gray, and even brown. Most have blackish brown scrawls and/or spots. Normally a female has only one brood. The females incubate on their own, spending most of their days and nights on their eggs, only getting off to eat, because most males desert their mates during this time.
Incubation lasts 11 to 15 days. Once the eggs hatch, the males rejoin their mates and, while the females brood the nestlings, the males do much of the feeding for the first few days. Then both feed the nestlings during the 10 to 17 days they remain in their nests and afterwards as fledglings for several weeks until the first of July or thereafter when they join roosting flocks.
Of course, all does not always go well during this time, and they lose close to half their eggs, nestlings, and fledglings to predation or human impact. Fox squirrels eat eggs and nestlings, rat snakes eat nestlings and gray squirrels and raccoons eat eggs. Eastern chipmunks and free-roaming, domestic cats consume the young. Raptors, including Cooper’s hawks, northern harriers, and red-tailed hawks and short-eared owls and great horned owls also prey on common grackles at all stages of their lives.
Still, common grackles thrived during the first half of the 20th century, but from 1966 to 2014 they declined 58% according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, and now their global population is estimated at 61 million birds. While they are still abundant and widespread, scientists from the North American Bird Conservation Initiative have drawn up a list of 33 United States common birds that have lost over half their global population during the last four decades, and in The State of the Birds 2014 report, common grackles made the Common Birds in Steep Decline list.
The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania estimated our population of common grackles at 1.5 million and one of the most abundant breeding bird species in the commonwealth. Still, our population has declined 1.9% per year from 1966 to 2009. Scientists don’t know why they are declining throughout their range since they are incredibly adaptable. But because they are a threat to agricultural crops, lethal methods have been used against them in some areas.
Lately, research has been uncovering the dangers of neonicotinoids, widely used in insecticides, to birds and insects. According to the American Bird Conservancy, whose scientists have been researching these chemicals for years, neonics, as they are called, persist in the soil for months and even years and can affect entire food chains (Bird Conservation Winter 2016, p.7).
“A single seed coated with a neonic,” they write, “is enough to kill a songbird.”
So even though common grackles are still common, ornithologists haven’t forgotten that once billions of passenger pigeons roamed our continent. And then they were gone. They hope by acting now and figuring out what is causing the steep decline of common grackles and 32 other bird species, they can keep them common for future generations.