The Audacious Bird of the West

The Great-tailed Grackle’s Conquest

The Great-tailed Grackle is becoming a symbol of urban society. Through its opportunistic spreading over North America, its obnoxious squawk is now heard more than many indigenous bird species in cities and rural areas. Commonly known as “devil birds,”(USA Today), they flock to wherever there is water and wet land, such as sprawling manicured lawns, giant golf courses, and well maintained swimming pools. They also frequent McDonald’s parking lots and shopping centers: wherever they can get a free and fast meal from littering and garbage, the grackle is there.

Grackles make a mess of things, their massive flocks leave inch thick droppings and when they kick out many of the native bird species, out-competing them. The Great-tailed Grackle is becoming a metaphor for how western culture is and has been taking over and destroying the natural habitat of other species. This species of bird is as opportunistic as it is marvelous to look at, with iridescent feathers and its strikingly bold personality.

My personal experiences with the Great-tailed Grackle were most notable during childhood. When I was a very young child living in Gilbert, Arizona I do not remember seeing them very much which is odd because I was always exploring the outside world. But I did spend a lot of time looking down at the earth, rather than at the trees. I wanted to be a Paleontologist when I grew up, and with a tiny pickax I would excitedly go out into my backyard and hammer away at the bone-dry earth, I collected rocks that I dug up, pretending they were fossils. I would also fearlessly play with a feral cat I had named so originally–Whiskers.

When I was eight my family and I moved to Oro Valley, in Tucson, Arizona and again I was very involved in the outside world and exploring the desert, in many ways more than when I was younger. It was there that I truly began to discover the Sonora desert, certainly a very different scene than lush Gilbert. My family and I went for hikes in the desert, traveled to Mt. Lemon, saw desert wildlife and heard tales of mountain lions living in the area not far from our home.

When I was eleven my family and I moved again, this time to a suburb in Phoenix, Arizona, called Ahwatukee. The desert and urban environment was more intertwine in the new place we moved to. This is where I would have my first memorable and humorous encounters with the Great-tailed Grackle. These experiences would have to be the encounters with grackles and my dog.

The birds were drawn in by the lush emerald lawn, sprawling kidney shaped pool and enticing bowl of dog food. My dog, a black standard poodle, named Jenna, would sit back calmly, watching these birds as they fearlessly came to steal her kibble bits. Never once did she ever try to chase these birds away from her food. Her predatory instincts never kicked in. After all she knew we would supply her with a fresh bowl of kibble every day, so she did not mind nonchalantly sharing her food with others. She seemed to enjoy “bird watching,” lying down and casually watching them squawk and fight with each other over her prized food.

Watching this always astonished me, how these birds were so brazen and domineering. In particular I distinctly remember there was an obese male, which bullied the other Great-Tailed Grackles, rewarding himself while eating the prize bits of kibble. I could always distinctly identify him, with his plump body and aggressive mannerism, pushing the other birds out of the way. He reminded me of a particular bully in grade school, which had a very similar in body type, demeanor and intelligence level to this Grackle. I do believe that that particular male bird has and is the only “wild animal” I have ever seen that was obese and an alpha male.

This kind of zealous behavior of the Great-tailed Grackle is not only humorous but parallels how humans have become increasingly unabashed towards the natural environment. Since the Industrial Revolution kicked in, it has been non-stop and does not seem to be slowing down. This is one particular instance where human behavior and the Great-tailed Grackle behavior is driving at the same intensity. The bird originates from central America and has been migrating North for hundreds of years, however by the 1950’s the Grackle began to travel and stay North due to continuing rising temperatures, allowing them to make a comfortable new home in the United States. This increasing migration from the Grackles and other species of birds comes from the fact that the planet is heating up, allowing this migration. Global warming is the main culprit, which is societies fault.

They are opportunistic species that does not hesitate to find a new place to call home if temperatures are warm and food is plentiful. It is now reported that the Great-tailed Grackle has flown as far north as Montana, as far east as Southern Texas and as far west as Washington State (USA Today). Destroying crops and leaving immense fecal waste everywhere, they are particularly troublesome when they congregate in the thousands. Biologists have described them as an “unstoppable machine” which continues to plow forward, causing havoc wherever they decide to fly in. “‘They’re an unstoppable machine,’ said Alan Clark, a bird biologist at Fordham University in New York City. ‘They’re really hard to scare, they’re hard to kill and they’re in such huge groups that even poison isn’t particularly effective’ ” (USA Today).

This locomotive of continues influx has been perplexing humanity on how to stop it. They are stubborn, fearless, and relentless in their pursuit of food. People have taken it upon themselves to try and make the birds leave the area. In which they are invading and disrupting the natural habitat. Certain methods to disperse the birds have been used, such as using laser beams, fire crackers and air cannons to frighten them away. Humane deterrents have also been tried, such as grape seed liquefied and sprayed into the trees in which the birds detest and will not want to land on (USA Today). Falcons have even been used to hunt them down; while there are some other inhumane methods, such as extermination from poison.

No matter the amount of effort put into scaring them, annoying them, or killing them, the Great-tailed Grackle continues to flow in and their numbers remain steadily high and unwavering in many places. These methods have only temporary success due to the continuing influx of them from breeding and the migrating from Central America. This depiction of a species that adapts and conquers must be compared to humanity, in which humans have fought each other in petty war, famine and disease and yet has still been able to survive into the billions and become an invasive species on every continent, even touching the moon. However since global warming is a phenomenon caused by humans, instead of blaming the Grackles, we need to blame ourselves.

The Great-tailed Grackle is an outgoing bird with social behavior that has correlations with society. They are not monogamous birds: the Great-tailed Grackles can switch mates between or during mating season. A male will claim one territory which could be several trees, with multiple females living there. The mother grackle lies between 3-4 pastel blue eggs with accents of brown and purple on the shells (Audubon).

She will incubate the eggs between 13 and 14 days, and the nesting time is between 20 to 23 days long (Arizona-Senora Desert Museum). The Female chooses the nesting location, which is usually as high and secure as possible within the tree which is a part of her territory. The nests themselves usually are made up of twigs and makeshift debris, the females being very resourceful. The male however helps with guarding the tree from any predators. There tends to be an uneven ratio of female to male, due to the higher mortality rate of male hatchlings (The Cornell Lab of Ornithology).

This multi-partner and free flowing nature of the Great-tailed Grackle lends itself to social trends and the deep communal and parenting bond which humanity has and tries to retain. The bird’s behavior can also become a symbol of how certain parts of society try and break away from the norms and not conform to monogamous standards, but live in openly mutual sexual relationships. In fact, when I first read about the physical behavior of these birds it reminded me of the sexual revolution occurring in the 1960’s and throughout the 70’s, with the wave of Hippie culture and free love.

I remember distinctly watching a documentary discussing the new found sexual freedom in modern America, around the year 1969, with the examples of: the development of the birth control pill in 1962, Playboy in 1953, and Woodstock in 1969. This documentary humorously enough is titled: “Sex in ’69: The Sexual Revolution in America,” which with a title like that never ceases to make me chuckle. This documentary whenever I think back on it, does remind me of the behavior the Grackles are exhibiting. This idealistic freedom of Polyamory relations, throughout history and in modern cultures can be compared to behavior found in many other species of birds too.

Not all species are quite so “free” with their love though. The opposite behavior can be found in a species related to the Great-tailed Grackle. Crows can form very monogamous relationships, mating for life. “Crows in the wild can live fifteen to twenty years. The oldest known wild crow lived nearly thirty years. They mate for life” (Deming 32). This behavior displayed by crows lends itself to the side of society which values monogamy and long-term relationships and commitments.

“When a crow is sick and dying its mate would sit beside it until the end” (32 Deming). Exemplifying the lengths at which the species takes commitment, similar to how humans would approach the idea of marriage and “death do us part”, symbolism. I find this incredibly fascinating, specifically since when I first would see the Great-tailed Grackle, I did not even realize what the Grackles were I ignorantly believed at the time that they were crows or ravens. This is incredibly interesting to me that birds which look so similar would have very different types of relationships with their partners.

Other behaviors of the Great-tailed Grackle which fascinates me can be their humorous ways in which they find mates, in particular how the males court the females, and how the iridescent black males will spar with each other over territory and the brown females. (Arizona-Senora Desert Museum). When the males wrangle with each other it is reminiscent of watching an old western duel, lifting their glossy iridescent wings and squawking as if they are going to draw pistols or swords, as if to say, “reach for the sky!” (Toy Story). They circle each other and continue to puff themselves up until one gives up on their bluff and blows away, embarrassed of losing the duel. The victor becomes the new Sheriff in town.

The males also have a bluffing behavior when they blow up their bodies and feathers, creating the illusion that they are inflating like a puffer fish, making themselves look larger and more threatening to other males and predators. The behavior the males display towards the females is also very humorous. The males will chase the females around, hoping and squawking at them, the females, always looking unimpressed, hop away annoyed.

The males continue to pursue the female, playing the same antics, oblivious to their failed smooth moves. It is reminiscent of a scene from a poorly made, cheesy and comical high school movie. Something that could come out of the insane imagination of comedic genius Seth Rogen or Jonah Hill, in a scene from Superbad, not something that should be in a National Geographic television special.

I remember seeing these mating and territorial behaviors for the first time at my house and later again and again on the Tempe Campus and, it always brought a quirky smile to my face. The humorous nature of these birds never ceases to amaze me; they are the jesters of the bird world, and a little comic relief in my life.

These types of behaviors from the birds, whether defending or claiming territory or trying to win over a new mate are behavior in which humans can find some kind of correlation when looking at the natural world. Whether it is trying to ask another person out on a date or competing in a type of sport, humans can and do relate on many of the fundamental trails and behaviors various animals exhibit and the Great-tailed Grackle is no exception.

It is interesting also comparing city birds versus country birds, since the Great-tailed Grackle seems even more at home in the city than the wild. They are not the only species of bird, however that have different languages and adaption methods passed down from generation to generation when it comes to understanding and thriving in the city versus the wild (Urban Bestiaries).

Even though the opportunistic Great-tailed Grackle has expanded its range and can be destructive, it has become a daily fixture in my mind when I think of the natural world around me. I see them every day on campus and in my own backyard. I have woken up hearing their squawks and chuckled when observing their Grackle shenanigans, parading about as if they own the world. In fact it would seem incredibly out of place if the Grackles suddenly disappeared from view. I know that I would notice it, however would other individuals notice? Perhaps, however it is unfortunate that many people very well would not notice, or bother to even think about the birds or other species in which inhabit the land and their lives. To be completely honest I believe I would miss the exuberance and humor of these birds if they were to one day disappear, even if they are invasive.

This begs the question; when does a quote on quote, “invasive” species, which is incredibly opportunistic, become native? When does it become so common place as no longer be seen as abnormal but instead as a normal fixture in the ever intertwined, and adapting web of society and the environment? A perplexing issue of how society and nature are at odds with each other and yet are one, creating a continuously changing dynamic of what is the new “normal,” not only what it comes to human technology and ingenuity, but also invasive species and native species interlace and battle. “Certainly humans can be destructive and shortsighted; they can also be forward- thinking and altruistic” (Kolbert 261). This can be our saving grace or our worst nightmare as humanity, our will to continue to press forward in technology and expansion as a species.

The Great-tailed Grackle is becoming a symbol discussing the parallels of humanity’s conquest. Homo Sapiens are a vastly invasive and opportunistic species, conquering the natural world, and causing havoc. We are taking over and destroying what is already there and putting native species at risk. Just as the Grackle appears to be this bold and gorgeous bird from the outside, so does our relentless global expansion and colonization. Thus bringing about new technology and yet not seeing the vast consequences of this on the natural world. “Right now, in the amazing time we call the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways go on and which will forever be closed”(Kolbert 268). As humans we can also look at how animal behavior can correlate to our own behavior and respond to events in the past as well as the future.

The Audacious Great-tailed Grackle

I remember first seeing these rambunctious, large black birds swarm my backyard as a child. They were drawn in by the lush emerald lawn, sprawling pool, but especially by the enticing bowl of dog food. My dog would sit back calmly and watch these birds as they came up fearlessly to nibble away at all of her kibble bits. Never once did my standard poodle try to chase those birds away from her food. She seemed to perhaps have enjoyed “bird watching,” for she would lie down and casually watch them squawk and fight with each other over her prized food. Watching this through the windows on my French backyard doors, it would always astonish me, how she was such a calm dog. She should have been carnivorous and predatory toward these birds, particularly since they were moving about so spontaneously. It was astonishing to me the fact that these birds were so brazen and domineering. In particular I distinctly remember there was an obese male, which bullied the other Great-Tailed Grackle, rewarding himself while eating the prize bits of kibble. I do believe that that particular bird has and is the only “wild animal” I have seen that was obese and full of vigor and alpha personality.

This exhibit of fearless determination in order to get a measly bit of food always dumbfounded me. They certainly did not act like other city birds. I greatly enjoyed watching them hop around and squawk at each other, they always appeared to be such a comedic seen. In particular when the large black males would corner each other and walk in circles, as if they were about to engage in a dual fit for the Wild West. As if they were drawing out their pistols at one another. The males would continue to circle and stare each other down, squawking, raising their wings and feathers to appear larger and more intimidating. Yet no matter how convincing their intimidating aggression toward one another is, one is always bluffing, and eventually after a few snaps of their beaks one flies away, the other the victor. Another humorous behavior I have seen them do countless times, is the males will chase around the smaller, brown females. The females hop away annoyed, while the males keeps trying to stubbornly and desperately follow them. I could watch this for quite awhile and the male bird just would not give up, no matter how annoying they were to the female. As if they were reenacting a scene from a cheesy, comedic high school movie. Seeing these birds display this kind of bold and comedic behavior in front of crowds of people, in particular on the Tempe campus, it never ceases to amaze me how they are not afraid of people.

One of the reasons why I decided to choose this urban creature as my animal for Life Overlooked, is because of how common these birds are, they seem to be everywhere, yet I had no idea what type of bird specifically they were if they were indigenous to Arizona, or not. I had assumed that they were a type of raven or crow, certainly a type of bird in the black bird family of species. However I did not realize that the smaller brown birds were females, I thought both genders had the black feathering. I had never even heard of the term Grackle, when naming a certain species of bird. Another fact that I learned is that these birds are not originally from Arizona, but farther south, in Central America, and have migrated north, even past Arizona; since the 1950’s the birds now have decided to stay as a permanent residence here in Arizona, due to the weather.

Certainly I have no doubt that much of the public has not heard of the Great-tailed Grackle, however they have seen this bird everywhere. That people see this species of bird every day they walk out of their house, or drive down the road they see this species of bird and many other species of birds and other urban creatures and do not give a second thought. The idea that no one thinks about this species or others similar is rather disturbing, in that people simply see these creatures and yet are not curious to know more about them; even scarier they assume they will always be there. This thought process that the world will remain stagnant even though humanity is plowing through our earthly resources like a freight train gone off the tracks, is not only ignorant and foolish, but completely irresponsible. If we do not change our ways, not only will the fate of other species be at risk of extinction, but humanity will be as well.

This is precisely why society needs to closely pay attention not only to the larger scale but also the small scale. Not only animals that are endangered and larger than life, but also species which embody the norm and the everyday occurrence; because they too display a ticking clock, which represents how we are shaping our global environmental future. This is precisely why I wanted to choose the Great-tailed Grackle as my animal; because it is certainly an animal that people would see and think will remain and never change. Yet its existence could help shape humanity and the world for the better.


The Great-tailed Grackle

The Great-tailed Grackle, also known as the Quiscalus Mexicanus, is a type of blackbird found in central America, all the way up to the southwest and Midwest of the United States. There are eight know subspecies of Great-tailed Grackle, but only three have been found in the United States. They recently migrated through Northern Mexico into Arizona during 936, and now can be found in Arizona mostly year round. They congregate near areas of water, or wet land; being seen near watered lawns, pools, rivers, ponds and irrigation systems. Even though they are many found on solid land, they do enjoy wading through shallow water of ponds and streams, looking for food. Therefore they thrive in a heavy watered metropolis like phoenix, where, pools and golf courses are in abundance. Whether in the wilderness, or rural and metropolis areas, they Grackle will migrate to.

They are fairly large blackbirds, with males being far larger than the females. Male Great-tailed Grackles have golden eyes and black feathers, whereas the females are a gray- brown. The male’s plumage is vivid with a bluish purple iridescent radiance, throughout the black feathers. These birds food palette is quite diverse, with them being quite opportunistic, eating an assortment of foods. Their diet includes but is not limited to: seeds, plant matter, insects, aquatic and reptile if small enough, and eggs and young of other bird species. They have even been known to eat dog food, or any other easy meal. When they forage for sustenance, they tend to do it in flocks, whether they are on the ground, or in shrubbery and trees.

When it comes to young and mates, the Great-tailed Grackle usually has more than one mate, and nests in colonies with other Grackles. Their preferred nesting site is in shrubbery near open water. The nests they create tend to be large and open similar in shape to a cup. Usually they build these nests fairly high off the ground, some being as high as twenty feet. When constructing the nests, their building material of choice usually is: grasses, twigs and weeds. Yet being that they are opportunistic in character they can use other light materials that they might find.

Their eggs tend to be blue, with the young being born in around two weeks after the eggs have been laid. The female Grackle is the sole provider of the young. The hatchlings are born brown, and leave the nest after three weeks of their mothers care. Because female Grackles are smaller than males and require less food, many times they will out survive their brothers. This unequal distribution of gender and natural selection means that there is usually a larger number of female Grackle than male.

During the winter months, the Great-tailed Grackle will congregate in large numbers. They will roost in what is known as “roosting trees”, where thousands of individuals with gather at one time. They have a boisterous personality, unafraid to come up to people or other animals if they think they will be able to get a free meal. They are a species that is incredibly abundant and not at all threatened. On record they can live up to 12 and half years of age. The Great-tailed Grackle is a brave and enthusiastic bird, which is not afraid to seek out new places to thrive.


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