Thursday, May 05, 2005


I wanted to do a post about birds, and since I was going to have the oil changed in the car, I took The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America along with me. Then I left it in the car, so had to go and ask for it back while I was sitting and waiting. "What are you reading?" the man asked. "Uh, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America," I reply lamely, thinking it is not much of a conversation starter. Not like the latest novel.

Car was done sooner than I thought, but when I went to pay the cashier, she said, "Are you a birder?" "No," I said, "I am just interested in all the black birds around right now.” She proceeded to tell me about her recent trip to Texas and how cool the grackles were. How they made really interesting sounds and made loud noises with their wing feathers and different noises with their tails feathers. She said she got really into watching them and told me where to see grackles in a park outside of San Antonio in a town called Castroville (can't remember exact name).

In addition to finding out that a field guide to birds can in fact be a conversation starter, here is what I have learned from my morning's study of birds that are shiny, iridescent, and black but not necessarily blackbirds.

First, I have to report the sad news that the flickers (read the whole saga starting with this link) have been usurped. Haven't seen them for a couple of weeks. Instead, starlings occupy their house. Starlings are the super common black-colored birds with the yellow beaks. Starlings must be very tough. They were introduced from Europe in the late 1800s and now have spread everywhere in North America and are very common wherever people live. (I remember learning in graduate school that the European Starling was introduced by a group of Victorians who wanted to import to America every bird mentioned in Shakespeare. If the introduction of the starling was intentional, it was a big mistake.) Anyway, starlings, like many of the species introduced from Europe, seem to be an invasive weed species, very aggresive, that thrives on disturbance.

I personally found the flickers to be formidable birds, large (12.5in), with long, powerful beaks. I would certainly back down if one pointed its beak at me. I saw what it could do to our siding. But apparently the starlings, though smaller, are even more formidable. They seem to have been aggressive enough to intimidate the flicker. I read in Sibley's that starlings also have powerful beaks but use them in a very different way from the flicker. "Starlings have a straight tapered bill, which they force into soil or vegetation and open with powerful muscles, creating a hole and exposing prey." Sounds like a pretty effective weapon to me.

According to my field guide, the starling is "distinguished from all other birds by shape and habits." I, for one, confuse them easily with blackbirds, except that they have a yellow bill. Now that I have studied the field guide, I also see that starlings have a short, square tail and pointed wings. The blackbirds that we also have in large numbers around here have black bills and longer, rounder tails and wings. Blackbirds are also apparently less aggressive, evidenced by who is occupying the bird house.

Also looking like blackbirds are grackles. I learned that the great-tailed grackle is "common and increasing" while the common grackle is "uncommon." Go figure. (By comparison, the flicker, the blackbird, and the starling are all "common and widespread.") The great-tailed grackle is also a pretty large bird, 15-18in long, (the blackbird and starling 8-9in). And the cashier at the car place was right, grackles live mostly south of here.

Now for their calls. I became fascinated with the description of their calls in the bird book. I find bird calls very difficult to describe. To me, the blackbird call is a sort of harsh call that sounds like a combination of breaking glass and a high-pitched squeaky wheel. But the bird book says of the blackbird, “Song a short, high, crackling t-kzzzz or t-zherrr with buzzy end. Flight call a hard dry ket." That would be four z's in t-kzzzz and three r's in t-zherrr.

In contrast, the starling's song is described as, "relatively quiet and disjointed: a mushy, gurgling, hissing chatter with high sliding whistles; often includes imitations of other birds' calls. Common call a harsh chatter. Flight call a muffled dry wrrsh." That would be two r’s, this time, in wrrsh.

But the grackles have the most interesting description of all. No relativism here. It is pure human bias. The great-tailed grackle’s song is "a series of loud unpleasant noises: mechanical rattles, sliding tinny whistles, harsh rustling sounds, and sharp hard notes. Flight call a low hard chuk or kuk." Not a flattering sentence or phrase to be found in that description. The common grackle doesn't fair much better and has an "unmusical harsh kh-sheee or khr-rezzh. Calls include short, harsh, toneless, wheezy notes. Flight call a low dry kek deeper than blackbirds." I don't speak bird (and I certainly wouldn't be able to spell it), but if I did, I'm not sure it would be fair to characterize a particular accent as unpleasant, mechanical, tinny, toneless, or unmusical. It is probably quite attractive and pleasant to grackles everywhere.

It is true, though, that birds sound different in different areas. In England they all sounded so sonorous and beautiful to me. In New England they were slightly less beautiful sounding, but still pleasant. The farther west you go, the harsher sounding the birds seem to become. Maybe this has to do with climate. It seems the sounds of the birds go with the harsh, leathery, thorny, and weedy-looking vegetation where water is scarce. It is not rounded and lush like the vegetation in England or New England where the birdcalls are also rounded and lush.

Anyway, from the description in Sibley's, I was thinking that the grackle was not a very pleasant bird. Certainly not the kind of bird you would want as a neighbor. I was glad that the cashier told me otherwise. Sibley's also did not mention the way they apparently communicate with their feathers. Now I am curious to see and hear one of these large, rumored-to-be-tuneless birds.

So there you have it. Don't bother to get the latest recording of any of these birds, but now you might be able to tell them apart and figure out whose harsh call is whose. In short, the news from here this spring is: flickers out, starlings in, blackbirds all around, and grackle yet to come.

Update 5/14: Starlings now have babies. Mom and dad are flying back and forth often and we can hear the babies' needy chorus at each arrival and departure.

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