Thirteen More Ways of Looking at a Blackbird



1. In one of its past lives, the Commodore building in downtown Austin had a food court and a three-story atrium. The food court attracted grackles, which scurried in through the swinging glass doors. The atrium’s roof leaked, forming a mini-swamp among the large potted plants on the fourth floor landing. The combination of greenery, dripping water, and trapped birds flying to and fro created a lovely outdoor feeling, enhanced by the building’s crickets and geckos. New management has wiped out the food court, which should discourage the wildlife. I do not know management’s plans (if any) for evicting the ghost from the Commodore’s upper floors.


2. The Hyatt Regency sits just south of downtown, across the Colorado river. At dusk in November thousands of great-tailed grackles often roost here in the trees and shriek. “What are those birds?” an out-of-town man yells at me over cocktail chatter. “Grackles,” I say. “Crackles?” he yells back. I am indoors at a noisy reception for urban administrators. I have just read research suggesting that dogs evolved to fill the ecological niche created by human garbage. Grackles often carry around bits of garbage, and I propose to this man that the birds be trained to clean up his city. He looks puzzled; possibly he can’t hear me over the shrieking humans.

I am taking a proactive approach. Because it’s just a matter of time before the grackles take over his city, as they have mine, and I want to nip potential hostility in the bud. Because I hear very little appreciation for grackles in Texas. “Garbage birds.” “Rats with wings.” “Greasy street chickens.” They displace the song- birds, say my suburban friends. They eat grains and grapefruit, say the farmers. “Widely regarded as pests,” say the naturalists. What can I offer in reply? That they eat grasshoppers? That they recycle hamburger buns? That, as scavengers go, they are remarkably good-looking?


3. A neighborhood cat was chewing on a young grackle. We frightened off the cat and caught the bird, still alive. At first, he sat rigid with his eyes closed and beak pointed skywards. I fed him softened pet food, bread, and fruit. His swallowing reflex was good; he left light-green droppings in the cage. He was well-feathered, though a bit bald about the neck, with a buff chest, long tough legs, and a long tough beak. The only visible injury was at the base of one wing.

He chirped at me once, at 6:30 pm. Tsik! This sealed my affection for him, because my sister makes the exact same noise when she sneezes. I let him stand on my finger. His claws were firm, and his beak grasped my hand to adjust his stance, but he used these tools courteously, not to hurt. He lived a good twelve hours; at 10:00 p.m. I found him keeled over. He had never quite lost the expression that said, Someone’s been chewing on me.

Earlier that day I had run into a lawyer who had the same puzzled, slightly cross, slightly distracted look as my grackle. We were not on intimate enough terms for me to ask who had been chewing on him.


4. Breeding season. The winter grackle conventions break up into small groups and disperse throughout the city. The males strut their terrains and fend off challengers. They tussle and tumble beak-over-tail in the dust and chase each other up trees. Or they square off on the ground, point their beaks to the sky, and try to bend their necks back even further, in a sort of competitive grackle ballet. Finally the losers fly away, and the dominant male takes up residence on a high perch and begins a noisy come-hither call.

Male great-tails are designed for courtship and – it appears – for little else. Their black coats are uncomfortable in the Texas heat; they pant in the summer and regularly dunk themselves in water. Their long tails are a burden on windy days, when one good gust can bend the tail 90 degrees from the bird’s body. Male grackles die off in larger numbers than females in winter, and it is thought that the males’ greater size and poorer flying abilities make survival difficult when food is scarce.

But in courtship, the male is a star. His glossy black feathers shine blue and green and purple in different lights, and he stands on tiptoe in the tip-top of trees and sings. First a rough noise, like bad radio static; then a wavering musical note which crescendos; then a burst of static again; then several loud, rising whistles. When the smaller, grey-brown female happens into his territory, the male flies to the ground, puffs up his feathers, fans out his tail, and flutters his wings, looking rather like an animated Elvis wig. He runs around the female, chittering. If she ignores him, the male’s feather volume dies down abruptly, and the casual observer is left to wonder about the evolutionary value of Big Hair.


5. One evening outside the (now razed) club Liberty Lunch, we passed a tree full of raucous grackles. Inside, we were bludgeoned by music. When we came out again, around 2:00 a.m., the tree still seemed to be singing. Had the amplifiers damaged my ears? Surely these birds must sleep? Naturalist Alexander Skutch set my fears to rest. “Especially at the outset of the breeding season, the [grackles] slept lightly and repeatedly awoke during the night to shatter with shrill calls the monotonous humming of insects.” Or the monotonous beat of reggae.

Austin’s famous Congress Avenue bridge bats are resident from March to November, but visitors in the off-season need not feel gypped. In February, simply move three blocks west of Congress Avenue, to the South First Street bridge, and you may get to witness Shrieking Hour. On some evenings, hordes of dark birds gather on the bridge rails, on the trees along the river bank, on the roofs of stores and restaurants, on the wires, on the light poles – thousands of birds perching shoulder to shoulder, shouting for all they’re worth, drowning out the noise of traffic, calling cheerful hosannas to commuters crossing the bridge from downtown, welcoming them back to South Austin.


6. Science recently settled on Quiscalus mexicanas as a name for the great-tailed grackle. Thirty years ago he was Cassidix mexicanas. Eighty years ago an Austin zoologist listed him as Megaquiscalus major macrourus, and gave him all kinds of English a.k.a.’s: Jackdaw, Big Crow Blackbird, Texas Grackle, etc.

Even the genus name Quiscalus gives scholars a case of the frets. Does it come from the Latin quis, what, and qualis, of what kind? But why? Or from quiscalis, quail? Or from the Spanish quisquilla, quibble – a reference to the noisy, chattering birds? Or from the Latin quisquiliae – refuse, dregs – the diet of the garbage bird? Linnaeus, who designated the genus, was not known to invent names, but in this instance he has left other naturalists guessing.

Mexico has separate gender terms for the grackle – clarinero or clarinete for the males; zanate or sanate for the females. Clarinero, trumpeter, is an obvious choice. Zanate comes from the Aztec tzanatl, meaning blackbird or grackle generally. The fifteenth century Aztec ruler Ahuitzotl was fond of the great-tailed grackle and had it imported from the coast to what is now Mexico City, where it became known as teotzanatl, divine or wondrous blackbird. Seventy years after Ahuitzotl’s death, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún reported: “If anyone stoned them, they chided one another; the common folk said to one another, ‘What are you doing over there? Do not shout at, do not stone the lord’s bird!'”


7. In 1989, a federal court in Illinois found Henry Van Fossan guilty of poisoning two mourning doves and two common grackles with strychnine. He was fined $450 and given three years’ probation for violating the Migratory Species Protection Act.

In 1992, the federal government authorized the killing of 164,478 grackles nationwide. In Texas alone, in fiscal year 2000, 17,095 great-tailed grackles were poisoned under the auspices of the federal Wildlife Services program.

If you are going to kill a grackle, it’s best to wait for the words, “Simon Says.”


8. In Managua at a bus stop I was sitting on a metal ring circling a thick pole. About a minute later, two things happened simultaneously: a great-tail issued its piercing, rising whistle, and an electric current traveling the metal ring jolted me to my feet. Many years later, when I first heard the grackle colonies in Austin, I felt an instant – you could say electric – affinity with them. I was passively familiar with the rest of their vocal repertoire – the squeaking and gargling resonated in memory. I must have heard them often in Central America, but I had not bothered, then, to connect the noises to a bird. Those were serious times, and I was a serious person, and the serious people I knew did not engage in bird-watching.


9. In 1925, Austin zoologist George Finlay Simmons noted the existence of one colony of four hundred breeding great-tailed grackles in the Austin area. “Very noisy,” he reported. “Possibly the noisiest of birds.”

What would today’s Highland Mall birds, or the South First Street bridge birds, make of these their humble origins? Four hundred birds would fit into just one large tree, and present-day colonies command whole groves. In our nation, great-tails were restricted to the Rio Grande valley in the early 1900s, but today they have been sighted in over half of the United States, as well as in Canada, and if they are not already there, they are coming soon to a town near you. For those of you in unbesieged cities, here is how to recognize the great-tail. The adult male can grow up to seventeen inches long; his tail accounts for almost half that span. He is slender and black – a tuxedoed gentleman of a city bird, as compared with the pouchy, rumpled pigeons. The female is smaller, maybe two-thirds the size of the male; her greyish-brown coat and yellow eyes give her the coloration of a Weimaraner dog. Male and female great-tails are so different they initially seem separate species. But they have the same eyes, and the same sturdy beak, and the same savvy and irritable expression – like that of a parent who knows exactly what you’ve been up to and is contemplating discipline.

Juveniles all look like females until the young birds molt. A feather blanket once burst in my back yard; that is roughly what the ground looks like under a large grackle roost when the birds start molting. Except that the grackles’ feathers are darker, and they fall with a certain regularity, often quill-down, spiking upwards through the lawn like grass blades themselves. As though someone had cast birdseed on the lawn, and the seed had begun to sprout literal birds.


10. Why Austin needs the grackles #1: Austin calls itself the live music capital of the world, and grackles give many live, loud, and free performances. Why Austin needs the grackles #2: Great-tails are archetypal Texans – big, brash, and promiscuous. I use the word “promiscuous” advisedly, since the archetypal Texan now has a bit of a split personality – on the one hand, there’s the five-times-married former Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, and on the other hand, there’s the Bible Belt crew currently running Washington.

Why Austin (and the rest of us) need the grackles #3: Black birds are part of our psyche. In the 1990s a local theater company performed Charles Staggs’ Tower Massacre Musical, which deals with one of the ugliest incidents in Austin’s history: the gunning down of fourteen people by a sniper on the University of Texas tower in 1966. I know of the musical only through its reviews, which were favorable, and which describe, among other things, how the souls of the dead are transformed onstage into shrieking grackles. Charles Staggs, Wallace Stevens, Edgar Allen Poe, even the Beatles – black birds haunt us all.


11. A dead grackle dropped head-first out of a tree onto the sidewalk. Another male flew down on top of him. Several females, clacking excitedly, fluttered out of the tree to surround the pair. The second male began pecking at the first, dislodging feathers. One female grabbed the corpse’s tail and dragged it a few inches before the male drove her off. The females flew back to their tree; the male kept pecking at the dead bird until I came nearer, whereupon he also retreated. The dead grackle lay long and straight except for curling legs and claws. His beak was broken at the tip, and the gap between upper and lower mandibles was lined with blood. He was a sturdy, well-feathered, mature male, his back still shining blue.

I have searched the literature, but I can find no description of fatal battles between male great-tails. And the broken beak suggested violent impact, not bird wrestling. Here is my best theory: the bird hit a window or was struck by a car; it then flew, damaged, into another male’s territory. The male may have attacked it, or it may have died of its injuries; in any event, after it died and fell, the females attempted to drag the corpse away, to avoid attracting predators to their nests. It is harder to understand the other male’s continued aggression, unless it was simply baffled by the dead bird’s behavior. The weaker male is supposed to fly away.

In 1821, John James Audubon caught a number of common grackles, as well as other birds, to send to Europe. After a few days, the grackles suddenly became violent, killing the other species as well as the weaker of their own kin. “I look upon this remarkable instance of ferocity in the Grakle with the more amazement,” Audubon wrote, “as I never observed it killing any bird when in a state of freedom.”


12. Here are two stories I can neither confirm nor deny. First: a landscaper reports that grackles shadow him when he mows lawns. This, I think I believe: the birds are there to snatch the grasshoppers that flee the machinery. A power mower would frighten off most animals, but the grackles’ tolerance for noise has me half-convinced they’re half-deaf. In the cities, it’s lawnmowers; in the countryside, tractors, no doubt; two hundred years ago, it was the plow, as Audubon also noted:

Thus does the Grakle follow the husbandman as he turns one furrow after another, destroying a far worse enemy of the corn than itself, for every worm which it devours would else shortly cut the slender blade and thereby destroy the plant…. Every reflecting farmer knows this well and refrains from disturbing the Grakle at this season But man is too often forgetful of the benefit which he has received;…no sooner does the corn become fit for his own use, than he vows and executes vengeance on all intruders.

I am more doubtful of the second story. An acquaintance told me he once saw a parrot – presumably an escaped pet – in a local city park. While he watched, several grackles flew up to the parrot and dropped bits of food at its feet, as though they were worshiping it, bringing it offerings. Where can I find precedence for this? To date, only in 1 Kings 17:

And the word of the Lord came to [Elijah], saying, Get thee hence, and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan. And it shall be that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there.


13. I was on a green lawn at the pink state Capitol, feeding a flock of grackles half of my enormous sandwich bun. The wind was blowing. There was a whole festival of grackles at my park bench. They rushed and snatched and pushed but did not peck at one another. At last I ran out of sandwich and told them so. They blew out in the wind, broke up in patches like clouds after a rain. All but one. An old grackle, too creaky for tussling, was eyeing me. I showed him my empty hands. He drew himself up, like a scraggly, stern old prophet, and he fixed me with his yellow eyes, and he informed me that henceforth I was always to withhold a portion of bread from the rambunctious youngsters, and when they flew away, then I was to minister to him, the venerable. But I have no independent confirmation for this story, either.