Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Birds I Don't Like

Every year, after the winter birds have left for their summer homes, catbirds arrive to make nests in my shrubs. My trees are filled with little birds that have found old woodpecker roosts  or other natural crevices to make their nests. The box I put out for the house wren every year gets a tenant.

These are summer visitors I welcome. Others are not.

This year I've discovered common grackles nesting in my large, unshorn juniper hedge that acts as a screen between me and my neighbor. Deer have decimated the bottom of this hedge, which is why I leave the top part alone. Black-capped chickadees and other birds roost there for the winter and I know cardinals nest there during the New Jersey breeding season.

Delmarva female Boat-tailed Grackle (RE Berg-Andersson)
So to have grackles does not please me. They are large birds that, when not paired for breeding, congregate in huge flocks that are frequently augmented by blackbirds, cowbirds and starlings. They descend like a black cloud on my lawn several times each fall and spring. If left out the house feeder would be completely covered. I have also seen grackles attempting to get at seed from my encaged feeders. 

There are people who like grackles. Their black feathers show blue and brown highlights in the sun because of the luminescence. Jack Kerouac's mother, Memere, loved feeding the "black birds" after Jack dragged her down to Florida during one of those times he wanted to get away from the notoriety of writing "On the Road."

It doesn't take much for a grackle pair in a tree to turn into a huge flock in that and surrounding trees, crowding out other nesters. Grackles are opportunists, and like starlings and house sparrows - other birds I do not like for a variety of reasons - they will eat garbage left on the street as well as the worms they can pull out of the ground.

So I am not happy to see the three grackles (a pair and a helper?) walking along my lawn or pulling insects out of the crevices of my trees. 

These grackles, as I said, are common grackles. Along the eastern coast there are boat-tailed grackles, which are bigger and whose tails look like hulls. Unlike the common grackle female, which is the same color as the male but smaller, the boat-tail female is brown, such as the one above. That is usually how I know what kind I am seeing. The third type of grackle is the great-tailed grackle, a bird of the southwestern U.S.

It might seem strange that someone who enjoys walking around and looking at birds would have an antipathy to some species. My husband says all birds are God's creatures and have to feed where they can (although he does run out to grab the house and suet feeders when grackle "invasions" take place). 

I see no contradiction. After all, there are people I dislike but I don't hate the species.

The only bird I dislike more than the grackle is the cowbird. There are three types -- the brown-headed that I see in New Jersey; the bronzed I've seen once, in North Carolina; and the shiny cowbird. My comments pertain to the brown-headed.

Male Brown-headed Cowbirds, Cape May, NJ 2015 (RE Berg-Andersson)
I've written of my dislike of this parasitic bird before (please see my post of June 12, 2011; unfortunately, the link doesn't work). Besides hogging feeders, the female lays her eggs in the nests of other birds, usually one per nest. The cowbird chick usually hatches earlier and is much larger. It usually throws the other eggs out of the nest and dominates the attention of the parents. Then, somehow, it leaves the nest and knows to join up with other cowbirds, starting the cycle anew.

There is nothing sadder than seeing a cardinal being chased around the yard by a screaming, hungry cowbird chick. I usually see this every year. Actually, there is something sadder -- the Carolina wren pair I saw in another backyard one year, feverishly trying to feed the screaming "baby" chasing them that was twice their size.

Like the grackle, starling and blackbirds, the birds don't "sing" so much as croak out strange noises. The male cowbird is black with a brown head, the female a dull brown. They frequently pick at things in large flocks on roadsides, either with other cowbirds or alongside grackles and starlings.

About the only thing grackles and cowbirds are good for is diversifying the species. But these birds are tough and crowd out the smaller and weaker. Like other bullies, they are in no danger of disappearing anytime soon.

Prejudiced? Guilty.