Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, February 9, 2020

A Plague (of Grackles) on My Lawn

The invasion of my neighborhood began at approximately 3:45 on the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 7.

The day started with a heavy rain, which was predicted to end with snow showers, strong winds and plunging temperature. The change in air pressure was already giving me a massive sinus headache, which was why I was working from home.

As the wind picked up and the snow showers blew in I went out to dump a week's worth of compostable material into the pile before it froze. That's been one of the advantages of a winter short on snow but with lots of rain and, for the most part, temperatures above average - I could dump my compost into the big pile in the corner of my yard rather than start stockpiling pails on the enclosed porch until the snow melted and the pile defrosted.

Grackle invasion, Feb. 7, 2020 (Margo D. Beller)
Coming back to the porch, I saw about a dozen robins and maybe half that many grackles on my lawn. Then I saw more grackles on a lawn on the next street. Then they were everywhere, flying from tree to tree over my head, and making a ton of noise.

I expected this and wasn't happy. I don't like grackles. They will attack the feeder, and each other, as they work to get at and devour all the food, keeping the birds that usually visit the feeder away in the process. If you see one grackle, you can be sure you'll soon have more. Grackles stay in very large flocks in winter, as do many other types of birds including the starlings, cowbirds, blackbirds (both red-winged and rusty in this part of the country) and even robins I've seen following grackle flocks. There is safety in numbers, a better chance of finding food with more pairs of eyes and, when hundreds of birds huddle together in a large space like a pasture or field, warmth.

When I've had invasions in my yard they have generally been just before or just after the snowfall of a more typical winter. In autumn the birds kick aside the fallen leaves to see what's underneath. In late February or March, any snow is generally melting, the ground is softening and the rising groundwater forces worms and insects to the surface.

When I speak of "grackles" I am referring to the common, or purple, grackle, so named because when the light shines on its iridescent black feathers they look purple. There are other types of grackles, depending on whether you are near the ocean (boat-tailed grackle) or in the southwestern part of the U.S. (great-tailed).

Friday's invasion came during an unusually (for this area) less-cold period. We have not been (as yet) set upon by the polar vortex and, as I said, we have not had much snow, certainly not the heavy snow topped by ice that had squirrels so desperate for food one year they could jump over the baffles, grab the feeders and try to pry open the protective caging.

Does increasing daylight trigger these invasions? Was the less-cold weather a factor? Is global warming to blame? I don't know.

Another view that can't begin to show the large number of birds.
Margo D. Beller)
Recently, there have been reports of thousands of grackles converging on areas across the country. In New Jersey, birders from Mattawan to Madison have reported thousands on their feeders and lawns. MH told me of a very large number he saw while running errands, less than a mile away from home, in one of our town's parks a day or so before the Friday invasion. Maybe that same group decided to check out my part of town.

Because I was standing in my backyard, those flying in went to the front yard and the yards across the street and beyond to hunt for food, as you can see in my photographs. The pictures can't begin to show the full extent and, of course, you can't hear hundreds of grackles making their usual noises - a kind of rusty-hinge cackle and a sharp "chuck!" - or the thunder of hundreds of birds taking off at once.

Like the starlings you will see in winter swirling around in the sky and looking like a single organism, grackles somehow can communicate to each other it's time to move, and fast. So when I stepped out the front door to take my pictures, several hundred took off from my property to the next yard, which is where I photographed them. The sight was fascinating as well as horrifying. Had I not seen the massing while my feeders were out there would've been dozens of big birds trying to get at the seed and the suet even though, with the exception of the house feeder, the feeders I use are not configured to allow big birds that don't like hanging upside down from feeding. But that doesn't stop them from trying.

As I watched from my front door all I saw were grackles, although other smaller black birds could've been among them. If you're a smaller bird of similar habit, following a large flock of grackles feeds and protects you, too. I do know that around the side of my house was the original group of robins, doing the same picking at the ground as the larger birds while staying well away from them. Did the robins follow the grackles or the other way around?

One last thing about grackles and their cohorts that is an unfortunate truth but a truth nonetheless - if 50 robins showed up on my lawn I'd find that charming, a sign that spring would soon be upon us. If I see 50 black birds, it looks evil. There is a reason Alfred Hitchcock used a "murder" of big, black American crows to attack children in a playground in his film "The Birds." To paraphrase one birder recently on the (private) NJ birder Facebook page, I tried to turn the grackles into cardinals to enjoy the spectacle but it just didn't work. Black is associated with evil and seeing hundreds of grackles covering the lawns and creating a major din was evil.

Groups of robins don't look nearly as evil. This picture was taken on
Long Island in November 2017.
(Margo D. Beller)
This was, without doubt, the biggest invasion with the largest number of black birds on my suburban lawn since our first year as homeowners, when I went to the backyard to investigate a creaking noise and found hundreds of grackles, starlings, cowbirds and perhaps some blackbirds, which took to the trees at my approach and stayed there, making a racket, until they started flying off in small groups for other areas that could accommodate such a large flock. If I'm not around, MH is under standing orders to watch for grackles and bring in all feeders if he sees an invasion underway.

Soon, all these birds - like the other, more colorful types I go out of my way to find in the woods during migration- will pair, mate, nest and create more. Then the large flocks will regroup.

The morning after the invasion, sitting on my porch in the cold sunshine, a group of about 30 grackles flew over my yard. They didn't stop, to my relief, as I watched the cardinals, woodpeckers and titmice at the feeders.

By the way, a flock of grackles is called a "plague." That's as good a way as any to define what I saw Friday.

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