Monday, April 8, 2013


Boat Tailed Grackle
I really like grackles, especially the big Boat Tailed variety. Their name is funny and onomatopoeic. Grackles are big and cheeky and gregarious. They chatter and squawk back and forth to each other with their creaky, rusty voices. They make a funny, clucking sound sometimes, and I can't tell if it's vocal, or the sound as they ruffle their feathers. It would be hard for a flock of grackles to sneak up on anyone because they're so noisy. I think they're beautiful, especially the males, with their iridescent black/blue/green feathers and big shiny beaks. The females look like an entirely different bird. They're a light brown and smaller than the males, but their behavior is similar enough that you can see a family resemblance. The males perch on tall reeds or fence posts keep a watchful eye for predators or other males. When danger nears, they cluck and creak out in warning.
Female Grackle foraging

Vigilant Male Grackle 
Grackles are very adaptable and can be found just about anywhere, from the beach to the Prairie to a Walmart parking lot.  I smile when I watch them strutting around like they own the place, wherever that is. When they descend on the bird feeders in our yard I always feel lucky (even though they'll probably eat most of the food) because they are so pretty and funny and I get to watch them up close for a while. But not everyone shares my enthusiasm for grackles. Some people get mad that they eat their bird food and farmers consider them a nuisance. Some crazy people seem to be mortally afraid of them and want to kill them. Others just think they're ugly and noisy. To make matters worse, a group of grackles is known as a "plague". Ogden Nash wrote this poem about grackles:

The Grackle
The Grackle's voice is less than mellow,
His heart is black, his eye is yellow,
He bullies more attractive birds
With hoodlum deeds and vulgar words,
And should a human interfere,
Attacks that human in the rear.
I cannot help but deem the grackle
An ornithological debacle.

I like the rhyme, but couldn't disagree more with Mr. Nash's sentiments. How could he know what's in a grackle's heart? And what bird could be more attractive than grackles, with their lustrous rainbow purples?

Beautiful Bird
The people of Winthrop, Minnesota, on the other hand, love their grackles and celebrate their return with every year with their Grackle Days festival. According to Wikipedia, Winthrop is known as "the grackle city of the world".  Coincidentally, this year's celebration just ended yesterday.

I think that Robert Penn Warren also liked grackles. In this sad, sweet poem about death and loss, it seems to me that he used the color and sound of the grackle as a familiar comfort touchstone. With their regular migration, the grackles seem to represent the constant passage of time and the promise of the return of spring (life). Despite death and loss, time will not stop and life will go on. Seasons change and the grackles will come again. I think this is beautiful and bitter-sweet, like grackles.

Grackles, Goodbye
Black of grackles glints purple as, wheeling in sun-glare,
The flock splays away to pepper the blueness of distance.
Soon they are lost in the tracklessness of air.
I watch them go. I stand in my trance.

Another year gone. In trance of realization,
I remember once seeing a first fall leaf, flame-red, release
Bough-grip, and seek, through gold light of the season's sun,
Black gloss of a mountain pool, and there drift in peace.

Another year gone. And once my mother's hand
Held mine while I kicked the piled yellow leaves on the lawn
And laughed, not knowing some yellow-leaf season I'd stand
And see the hole filled. How they spread their obscene fake lawn.

Who needs the undertaker's sick lie
Flung thus in the teeth of Time, and the earth's spin and tilt?
What kind of fool would promote that kind of lie?
Even sunrise and sunset convict the half-wit of guilt.

Grackles, goodbye! The sky will be vacant and lonely
Till again I hear your horde's rusty creak high above,
Confirming the year's turn and the fact that only, only,
In the name of Death do we learn the true name of Love.

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