Sunday, January 23, 2022

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A Plague of Grackles

“Dive-bombing grackles send workers running,” reads a headline in the Houston Chronicle. The birds are described as “terrifying” and “swarming like flies” with thousands of them roosting on light poles, cars and trees and chasing unwary shoppers to their cars. A group of grackles is called a plague, and they are often treated as such. Google “grackle” and “bird feeders” and you’ll find dozens of complaints about them chasing away more popular birds. 

Grackles and humans do have a long history of conflict. Take this example from a century ago in Mt. Vernon, New York. Fed up with the thousands of grackles roosting there, the town attempted to scare them away with fireworks. “Birds Jeer at Barrage” reads the New York Times headline. The article describes street-by-street combat through the town to the dump, where police and birds both gave up for the night. The birds were back in their trees the next day. 

Then they brought in owls, hoping that the birds of prey would chase the grackles away. “What is bothering me now is how to keep the owls in the trees where the grackles are,” the mayor admitted. Whether it worked is not reported, although the continued presence of the grackles suggests that the owls found a quieter place to live.  

Over the next forty years, the battle of the grackles raged on. A succession of Mt. Vernon mayors tried more fireworks, bright lights, fire hoses, recordings of distress calls, and outright shooting the birds. By the early 1960s they were using experimental shotgun shells. In a nearby Bronx neighborhood, residents allowed as how they preferred the grackles “to the noise of the shotguns and a shower of dead birds.” The story goes cold after that. 

While the Hitchockian scenes in the Texas parking lots feature Great-tailed Grackles, in South Dakota we’re most likely to see the Common Grackle, which breeds across the state in forests, grasslands, cultivated fields, and residential areas. Its closest relatives are meadowlarks, bobolinks, orioles, and blackbirds. 

The grackle is actually quite a beautiful bird. If you look closely, you’ll see its iridescent feathers change color in the light. Grackles are omnivorous, and I’ve even seen them wading along the river’s edge looking for small animals or fish. They engage in a practice called “anting” in which they allow ants to crawl on them and secrete formic acid, an antidote to bird lice (watch for Northern Flickers doing this as well). Their heads contain a mineral called magnetite, which helps them navigate.

The grackles may have won their battle against generations of mayors in Mt. Vernon, but they are actually in serious trouble. They cause millions of dollars in crop damage every year and are only conditionally protected in states like South Dakota. Even as their range expands due to warming conditions, habitat loss has caused the population to decline by almost 50% in the last forty years, according to Partners in Flight. It’s no wonder they mob grocery store parking lots, where it’s always light and scraps of food are everywhere.

 The good news? There are still an estimated 70 million Common Grackles out there, and we may still have time to find ways to coexist. After all, in spite of their reputation Grackles aren’t even among the top five birds likely to attack humans. Watch out for those starlings and geese though.  

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