Bird of the Week #9: Grackles

Sinister Grackle

Once again, I’ve bumped a bird to make room for a different bird on Bird of the Week. For this week, we’ll actually be discussing two different species, both similar and found in Wichita: the Great-tailed Grackle and the Common Grackle. They’re very similar birds, with the most pronounced difference being their tails. Common Grackles have a more “common” short tail, while the great-tailed variety has larger tuft of feathers on its tail. I’m going to simply refer to grackles in this post and cover both species at once, as there really isn’t enough of a difference to merit two posts.

One time, before I was The Great Plains Bird Man, I accidentally dropped an Oreo in a QuikTrip parking lot. A curious grackle watched the food fall and waited for me to step away before rushing the sugary treat. I watched as it briefly examined the cookie and I wondered why it didn’t immediately eat it. It was a mini Oreo, so the grackle could easily have gobbled it up, but it didn’t. Instead, it used its beak to pry open the tasty snack and ate the cream filling first. It then ate the two cookies separately.

Brewer's Blackbird
Curious to see a grackle outside of his natural parking lot habitat!

There was obviously thought coming from that grackle as it ate the Oreo. The grackle eating the cream filling first made me think that this wasn’t that bird’s first Oreo, but also seems to indicate that grackles have preferences. This grackle didn’t just eat whatever food was in front of it, but it seemed to know where the best part was and how to get to it. It was at this point that I began to respect grackles because I realized I was looking at a bird with thought and simply a parking lot nuisance.

Anyway, let’s get something out of the way: when it comes to birdfeeders, grackles are often pests and generally considered unwelcome. The reason for this attitude is that grackles often show up in large groups, crowd out feeders, and can be mean to smaller birds. All of these reasons are true and I won’t deny them. However, unlike the complete roasting I did of the horrible European Starling, I plan to focus more on what makes grackles interesting.

The Kansas state bird is the Western Meadowlark, but if there was to be a city bird chosen for Wichita, it would have to be the grackle. There is not a single parking lot in Wichita lacking a grackle foraging for French fries. They don’t really seem to mind people all that much and will get fairly close to you if you let them. Grackles seem to understand that humans are ones dropping all those tasty scraps and so they seem to want to stay close to get first dibs.

This is excellent example of cause-and-effect thinking that serves as a building block for understanding animal intelligence. Dogs, for instance, are masters of cause-and-effect thinking. How do you teach a dog to sit? You give it a treat whenever it sits, repeating the command to sit until the dog associates that command and action with receiving food. We consider dogs to be fairly intelligent creatures, largely due to cause-and-effect understanding. grackles seem to illustrate this same type of thinking.

Unfortunately, the intelligence of grackles doesn’t seem to be as well-studied as for crows. I don’t think grackles are quite as intelligent crows, but this is coming from a non-ornithologist and his uneducated observations. My other non-educated observation is that grackles are not studied as much because they are not as culturally significant as ravens and crows. After all, Edgar Allen Poe probably understood that “Quoth the grackle ‘Nevermore’,” doesn’t quite the same ring to it.

Common Grackle in a Tree
The grackles love to loom in my trees

Although not a sure sign of intelligence, grackles have also proved to be exceptionally adaptable birds, with them benefitting strongly from living amongst humans. Grackles apparently have zero issues with foraging in parking lots, navigating dangerous cars and other hazards. Other birds share this adaptability, such as the Rock Pigeon, but I find it impressive nonetheless. I mean, just look at all the other birds that live among us who don’t share the same level of adaptation as the grackle. What’s more impressive, to me, is that the grackles I see don’t seem to have any issue switching between more natural environments and urban ones. They don’t seem to just adapt in an evolutionary sense, but also in a more spontaneous nature. Most other songbirds can’t say they have the same ability.

Most impressively, grackles can pass the Aesop’s Fable test. In short, the test is where a treat floats in in a beaker of water. The only way for the bird to get the treat is to raise the water level by dropping in weights. Crows are famous for passing this test, which requires reasoning and thinking with tools. Very few animals are known to pass this test.

Outside of formal research, you can observe grackle intelligence on your own. Just take a few minutes the next time you’re in a parking lot and just watch how the grackle interacts with its environment. Watch as the grackles watch you, hoping you’ll drop the next bit of food. Or watch as grackles inspect car grills, checking for insects. I’ve seen grackles check the insides of grocery bags, knowing that there’s sometimes something left behind.

Grackles are deceptively beautiful birds. At first, they might appear to simply be black, but closer examination reveals iridescent greens, blues, and purples in their feathers. They also have those sinister-looking yellow irises that make them look constantly up to no good. Their songs aren’t very pretty though, with nothing but raspy, chirpy calls.

I actually don’t mind it when the occasional grackle shows up at my feeder. A solo grackle is no more offensive to me than a Blue Jay, which is one of my favorite birds. Grackles become an issue when they show up in massive flocks that dominate my feeders. The smaller birds seem to be afraid for the grackles and will wait for them to leave.

There are two ways to keep grackles at bay. The first is to use caged squirrel-proof feeders. Grackles are too large for those, but so are Blue Jays. I’ve also not had much luck getting bluebirds or cardinals to go into my caged feeder. The second is to serve nothing but safflower in the feeders they can access. The grackles don’t seem to like it too much.

In Kansas, grackles are a fact of life. While you’ll hear no argument from me that they are pests at bird feeders, the grackles might be misunderstood and worth a second look. No, they are not the prettiest, but they’re actually quite interesting birds. I hope my article has helped you generate some respect for grackles, maybe even interest. Please, tell me what you think of grackles! Do you have any fun experiences with our misunderstood friends?

Further Reading:

Cornell Lab’s page about the Common Grackle and for the Great-tailed Grackle.

Audubon Society page about the Common Grackle and for the Great-tailed Grackle.

An excellent, recent article from Audubon about grackle intelligence.

And here is an article from National Geographic going into further detail about Aesop’s Fable test.

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