A late fall invasion of blackbirds: the common grackle

A late fall invasion of blackbirds: the common grackle

Two years ago my wife Julie and I were driving through Hartford on the way to visit our daughter in West Hartford. We had crossed the Connecticut River and were through the city when suddenly the sky was full, and I mean full as in filled with thousands of crows. A few years before hundreds of crows had taken up winter residence near the post office in our hometown Putnam, so I have seen large numbers of crows roosting together before. What was flying over the highway that day in Harford was like nothing we had ever experienced. We looked at each other and started recounting scenes from “The Birds,” the famous horror film by Alfred Hitchcock.

This huge winter roost of crows even made the Hartford Courant and the flock was estimated to be 19,000 birds. According to the article, a roost of that size is not actually a big roost and an estimated winter roost at Fort Cobb, Oklahoma in 1972 was estimated at 2 million crows! You can find the Hartford Courant article by Gregory Hladky online at:

https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-news-ct-crow-roosts-20200113-xquequrpkjhnlhreaclflztzee-story.html

I was reminded of this event two weeks ago when our yard was invaded by approximately 200 common grackles. We have a large back yard with a few trees and mostly open ground. A tall red oak stands guard over the yard and a large bird feeder hangs from one of its long branches. It is high enough from the ground to discourage squirrels but within our reach for refilling with sunflower seeds.

That day I looked up to see the red oak completely filled with blackbirds. At first I thought we were being invaded by a large flock of starlings, but a quick scan with my binoculars determined they were common grackles. I settled in for about 20 minutes of observing the flock’s movements about the property and grabbed a notebook to record their antics.

At first two or three birds, like vanguard troops, silently dropped from the tree to explore the ground under the feeder, and then all at once the rest came down to forage the ground for seed remnants and bugs.

Several of the hungry scavengers found two hanging suet feeders and attacked it all at once. Hanging with their feet from the wire cages they snatched at the tasty food, twisting and swinging above the other members of their tribe. More and more landed on the suet feeders until their weight brought the entire pole to the ground. This commotion startled the flock and they lifted in unison, and with the racket of 200-plus noisy birds flew together to another tree about 100 feet from the bird feeder.

Soon the scene was repeated with a few brave birds flying down to the ground below the feeder and the fallen suet. This time they discovered the large hanging feeder that held the prized seed. A dozen or more continually landed on the feeder, wings flapping and swinging the container, dropping its precious food to the ground.

I looked on like a helpless villager as a black-winged horde pillaged the yard for any meal they could scrounge. Within 20 minutes their work was done, and they flew over the back field in the direction of a nearby corn field. That field had long been harvested but I am sure there were plenty of tasty morsels waiting for them.

I didn’t begrudge the visiting grackles, but acknowledged their resilience, flock dynamics and group communications. Common grackles, however, are among the more reviled of blackbirds, representing death, and the foreboding of a bad omen in lore for centuries. Flocks of crows are called a “murder,” and flocks of grackles are called a “plague.” I can attest to the name, even if for only several minutes.

With the invasion over, calm returned to the back yard. Quietly from the safety of the nearby pine trees a few black capped chickadees returned to the feeder, followed by their friends the white breasted nuthatch and tufted titmouse. The “Tres Amigos” of our winter feeder were relieved to see the black-winged horde move along.

I did a bit of reading about the common grackle and here is what I found from the online site All About Birds by the Cornell Lab for Ornithology and the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Common grackles are the largest members of the blackbird clan and are regularly found in Massachusetts and Connecticut. They have long wedge-shaped tails and are about a foot long. Their feathers are shiny with purple heads and blackish bronze-iridescent bodies. Females are less glossy than males.

They breed in many habitats from swamps to fields, woods and grasslands and in human neighborhoods as well. To say they are “gregarious” is an understatement, and they are hard to miss when present in your yard. Along with their shining color they are known for their piercing “rusty-hinge” voice that is definitely not the most pleasant sound in the avian world.

They migrate in groups to the south for the winter. Here in southern New England they can be found throughout the cold months as long as a food source is nearby. Sometimes other blackbirds will join flocks of grackles and that day I spotted a couple of red-winged blackbirds among the hungry birds. Their favorite foods are grains, and they certainly enjoyed the black oil sunflower seed in my feeder.

Here is information on this amazing bird from the All About Birds website:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Grackle/id#

I am never surprised by the discoveries in my own backyard. Nature comes calling every day to be appreciated in wonder, even a winged horde of hungry grackles. We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor – our very own, homegrown National Park. I hope you’ll join me as we care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org

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