About us: We own the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in East Lansing, Michigan,
a store that provides a wide variety of supplies to help you enjoy the birdwatching hobby.

This blog was created to answer frequently asked questions & to share nature stories and photographs.
To contribute, email me at bloubird@gmail.com.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Blackbirds return to Michigan

The return of the blackbirds is always a sure sign of spring. I’ve been hearing the Red-winged Blackbirds since mid-March and today I saw my first grackle of the year. Some people mistake the black and white speckled starling for a grackle. European Starlings are chunky and blackbird-sized, but are here year-round and not real blackbirds.

Common Grackles are medium-sized blackbirds with metallic purple sheen on back, head, neck, and breast. And their eyes are bright yellow. The female is smaller and duller and later in the season you might see the juveniles which are dark brown with dark eyes.

Also known as Cackles, Gackles, Big Bad Blackbirds, people sometimes have a hard time remembering the name Common Grackle. As it turns out, it was one of the most difficult birds for scientists to name too.

Diana Wells writes in her book 100 Bird and How They Got Their Names, that when naturalists first came to explore North America it was difficult to determine to which genus grackles belonged. In between the size of a crow and starling, the common name, grackle, came from gracula, which is Latin for the Jackdaw or small crow.

In the 1700's, Carl Linnaeus a Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist, who laid the foundations for the modern scheme of  binomial nomenclature, gave the grackle their scientific name Quiscalus quiscula. This is from the Latin quis, which means “who” and qualis, which means “of what kind?”

They are resourceful foragers. In Michigan, Common Grackles thrive on bugs, beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, spiders, crustaceans, mollusks, fish, frogs, salamanders, mice, and other birds like sparrows around farms, fields and large lawns. They sometimes follow plows to catch bugs that are exposed, pick leeches off the legs of turtles, steal worms from American Robins, or saw open acorns with the hard keel on the inside of the upper beak.

They build bulky nests of twigs, leaves, and grasses along with other bits of found objects like paper, string, mud and hair, high in a coniferous tree. Common Grackles sometimes nest in loose colonies of up to 200 pairs, showing little territoriality except in the immediate area of the nest.

By October most Common Grackles have left Michigan again to gather in large communal flocks and fly south. They switch their diet to more seeds such as corn, rice, sunflowers, acorns, tree seeds, and fruits. Their tendency to form large flocks has them suspected of causing immense damage to crops, and this has made them the target of eradication campaigns, though their numbers remain strong.

Related Articles:
   - Bird of the Week: Common Grackles http://bit.ly/OzgUjw
   - How to keep grackles away: http://bit.ly/Q1q0GI
   - Why is the blackbird associated with evil and ill omens? http://bit.ly/OzhBtb
   - When black birds fly south http://bit.ly/Q1qDAk
   - Bird Basics: How are birds classified? http://bit.ly/Q1reSr

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