A little while ago I wrote a blog post on False Map Turtles, and mentioned that grackles pick leeches off the turtles’ skin while they sunbathe. When I wrote that post, I had no idea what a grackle was. So of course I went and looked them up, and it turns out grackles are birds!

There are actually eleven species of grackle, but I will focus on the common grackle. Common grackles are found in much of North America, and particularly in the southeastern United States. In the summer they come north to Canada for the breeding season, but tend to stay south during our winters (I don’t blame them at all). Grackles prefer open areas that have a few trees about, which means they have flourished thanks to human developments.

Grackles are quite boring-looking birds, with mostly black plumage that is only interesting because of the slight iridescent shine to it. The heads of common grackles at least have some colour to them, ranging from shiny purple-blue to green and bronze, depending on the region. Common grackles have creepy yellow eyes and long, pointy black beaks. They can reach lengths of 28-34 cm, with males being larger than females.

A happy-go-lucky grackle. Or an angry grackle. I can’t really tell.
Image by Mdf, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Grackles are serially monogamous, sticking with their chosen partner for a breeding season and selecting a new one each year. Females and males go through a courtship ritual which involves the female flying close to her chosen mate. The pair will then separate from the flock and have a round of sing-a-longs to cement their bond. Once this is done, the female picks a spot for her nest, and the real business can start.

Common grackles lay between 1-7 eggs, which can be a number of different colours, from light blue to gray to dark brown. While the female grackles get ready to lay, the males stay very attentive to their lady friends, perching beside them, and following them around, but once the girls start incubating, the males start to lose interest. Almost half of the males will leave their partners before hatching, though those that remain will actually stick around to help raise the chicks.

A (fairly) ugly grackle chick.
Image by Donna Dewhurst/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Grackles are very social birds, living in flocks of up to 200 breeding pairs. These flocks aren’t just limited to grackles, either: blackbirds, starlings, and cowbirds can all make up the flock. The birds even migrate together during winter. Grackles are territorial, but only around their nest sites, so I guess it’s not that hard for them to get along with hundreds of other birds.

One of the reasons that grackles do so well near human settlements is their versatility, especially in regard to their diets. They usually eat insects and other invertebrates, but are very opportunistic feeders. Grackles have been known to follow ploughs to feed on the yummy grubs that the ploughs turn up; they will steal worms right under robins’ noses (so I guess the early bird doesn’t always get the worm); they will eat garbage; and of course, they will eat leeches off other animals. Quite the resourceful little birds.

While grackles may not be as flashy as Peafowl, or as awesome as Gyrfalcons, I’ve always had a soft spot for plain birds that use either brains or flexibility (or both) to flourish. Which is why some of my favourite birds are crows, but grackles definitely have a way cooler name.

Cover image by Ryan Hodnett, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons