Writer’s Block: In Defense of a Most Common Bird

Port Isabel-South Padre Press

With the fall migration in full swing and birders from near and far “oohing” and “aahing” over the astounding variety of colorful, whimsical, rare, eye-catching and breathtaking avian species wending their way through the Rio Grande Valley, I thought I would take a moment to extol the virtues of a most common bird.

It’s a bird oftentimes viewed as drab for its plentifulness. It’s a bird sometimes seen as a nuisance for much the same reason. But, I happen to really enjoy them and delight in watching their antics as they coexist beside us in our suburban universe.

What bird am I talking about? The great tailed grackle, of course!

Yes, you read that correctly. The grackle. Those loud, bold, boisterous black birds that keen and call all day long in parking lots, yards and tree branches throughout the Valley.

Though grackles can be found here along the Laguna Madre, it’s further west where you can truly get a sense of them. Places like Harlingen, Pharr and McAllen. The more urbanized the area, the more grackles you’ll find.

I find myself fascinated by their group behavior. It’s not uncommon to see hundreds of the birds perched upon power lines late in the day, when shadows begin to draw long. They sit there, evenly spaced, like rows upon rows of sentries guarding the oncoming sunset. Or perhaps heralding its arrival.

As the twilight begins to deepen, you’ll find them convening in department store parking lots, taking up residence in the stubby trees dotting the asphalt plains. Even with the aid of street lights, with darkness descending, it becomes near impossible to see the birds as their black plumage camouflages them against the leaves.

You can certainly hear them, though. They speak. They YELL! For hours and hours after sunset, you can hear the squawks and chatter of the grackles. Some of their calls are almost like whistles. Others begin with something that sounds not unlike an old school flashbulb spooling up before it — FLASH, BANG, POP — fires its handheld daylight.

It’s a raucous cacophony that I’m almost certain has to be some sort of grackle language. For they’re loudest during these evening conventions and I like to imagine it’s because they’re eagerly swapping stories with one another about the day’s adventures. Perhaps someone nice threw them a French fry.

And another odd thing I’ve noticed about these gatherings: they only ever seem to happen in retail spaces. Sure, grackles love a nice tree in a quiet neighborhood as much as the next bird, but these avian rock concerts only occur with such density at Target or Walmart or the like.

Grackles can be social birds in other ways, as well. I remember sitting outside some time ago to enjoy a meal al fresco. A dozen or so seagulls sat nearby, loudly demanding scraps. I very pointedly tried to ignore them.

A moment later, however, a female grackle — her plumage a much duller chocolate brown compared to the iridescent, inky-blue sheen of her male counterparts — hopped onto the table and cocked her head towards me.

Much to the chagrin of the pushy gulls, I slowly stretched my arm towards her, holding up a tiny morsel of food. She hopped forward, plucked it gently from my fingertips and gave me another quick glance before flying a few feet away to eat it.

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