I know I am in the minority on this one, and this might make me sound like some kind of bird hipster, but I love grackles. And of the three species of grackle that fly Texas skies, I love the urban-dwelling, grocery store parking lot–invading, great-tailed grackle the most, so much so that I think it should be the state bird of Texas. (For now, I have to content myself with considering it my spirit animal.) After all, as Texans we like to go our own way. Why are we content to share the mockingbird with the likes of Arkansas, Mississippi, Florida, and Tennessee?
And while some people swear they’ve been attacked by mother grackles, I think those people are mistaking them for mockingbirds. Personally, I have never been assaulted by a grackle but have been bushwhacked by mockingbirds on at least three occasions, two of them very embarrassing (try and look manly with a mockingbird flitting around your head).
Here are some more reasons grackles are among the coolest birds in urban Texas:
The Way They Look
Sinuous, lithe, and undulating, in flight the grackle looks like it was handcrafted by Modigliani or Brancusi. People predisposed to hate the grackle write them off as merely black, and sometimes even call them blackbirds or crows, but look closer, especially in the bright Texas sun, and the male grackle reveals itself as sporting a violet-tinged sapphire chest and head. And those tails! Tucked away in a compact V-shape while afoot and fanned out in flight, they are so immense it seems a wonder that these birds can fly at all.
The Way They Sound
What’s more Texas than a hearty symphony of grackle racket? These birds can sound like everything from a squeaky door hinge to explosions of static from a radio left on at high volume to laughing whistles to monkey-like rattles. On warm spring mornings, their orchestrated cacophony just sounds like home. In Texas, they put the “jungle” in urban jungle.
Quiscalus mexicanus is the great-tailed grackle’s Latin name. I was unable to find a translation for quiscalus, but it sounds like something that would come squawk-warbling out of a grackle’s sharp black beak. “Grackle” is an eighteenth-century Anglicization of the Latin graculus, which sounds a little like Dracula but means “jackdaw.” (Male grackles, when mating, with their arched shoulders and purposeful stalking and assaults on oblivous females, certainly resemble that infamous vampire.)
Jackdaws are a similarly gregarious European blackbird and a totem of doom in British murder mysteries: the background squawk of a jackdaw in these shows is as sure a harbinger of death as the appearance of an orange in the Godfather trilogy. In Honduras and Costa Rica, grackles are known as clarineros or “buglers.” For reasons that I am sure make sense to them, Venezuelans call grackles “Negro Luis” and “Pedro Luis.”
In Colombia they are known by the politically incorrect term mariamulata, or “Maria the mulatto.” In that country’s port city of Cartagena de Indias, the great-tailed grackle is the town’s official bird and is honored with a statue. (Artist Enrique Grau was enchanted by the grackle for much of his life.) The people of “Cartagena the Heroic” love our reviled grackles because they see them (correctly) as smart, adaptable, festive, sociable and collaborative, hard-working, sly, and able to roll with the changes. The statue is pictured below, and beneath that is a shot of a mariamulata in full Batman mode over the rooftops of Cartagena, courtesy of part-time resident and full-time Houston Ship Channel pilot Lou Vest.
In Mexico, where they are known as zanates, it was said during pre-Columbian times that back in more ancient days, zanates were mute. Zanates being zanates, they soon fixed that problem. According to one grackle scholar’s account: “In the creation, the Zanate having no voice, stole its seven distinct songs from the wise and knowing sea turtle. You can now hear the Zanate’s vocals as the Seven Passions (Love, Hate, Fear, Courage, Joy, Sadness, and Anger) of life.”
Something’s wrong with America. Most of us can’t hear those Songs of Seven Passions, so we simply write off a large group of singing zanates sharing the Seven Passions of Life as a mere “annoyance of grackles.” (Per Wikipedia, that is their true collective name. For shame.)
They Piss Off Ignorant Nativists
Some newcomers to the Southwest erroneously believe that grackles arrived in places like Texas and Arizona only recently, whereas they’ve actually resided in most of the region for decades, and sometimes centuries in certain areas. These “illegal” birds piss these people off, and they want grackles deported or killed.
They were here before you, dude. And they will be here after you and all the rest of us are gone. In fact, in the event of the annihilation of the human race, I am pretty sure that grackles would get the power back on within in a week. They like the way that juice thrums through those lines under their talons.
They Terrify New Yorkers
Check out this Gawker piece from 2013. Early on, in the aftermath of a grackle incursion into the Big Apple, this writer calls the bird “invasive.” It is not. While its range has been expanding since 1880 or so, it is native to North America, unlike true invasive Old World species such as house sparrows (which grackles occasionally kill and eat), starlings, and NYC’s beloved pigeons, which in actuality are—and I type this objectively—truly nasty, loathsome, stupid, and useless birds.
However, because grackles are native to unfashionable (according to New Yorkers) regions of flyover country, they might as well be swooping down on those provincial navel-gazers from a demon planet circling Alpha Centauri.
The worst part of the devil bird—worse than the “human health” risk posed by the number of their droppings, worse than their “annoying, almost mechanical call that begins at dawn”—is their dead, laser-pointer eyes, their artificially stiff movements, and eerily glossy feathers, like a horrible robot-bird designed to mimic the appearance of true birds. “Don’t mind us,” their buzzing calls seem to say. “Our feathers only cover normal bird meat, not an unholy alliance of smoking wires and foul intent.”
Robot-birds? Unholy alliance of smoking wires and foul intent?
On the contrary, is there anything more amusingly human in the entire avian world than the strutting courtship display of the males, with their ludicrous dancing, their oft-rebuffed bull-rushes of would-be mates, and those Dracula-like puffed up cheeks and necks? It’s poetry—Chaucerian/Harpo Marx farce—in motion.
In Austin, Grackles Have Been Yelped
Of course they have. (They get 2.5 stars, evenly split between 5-star raves and 1-star pans.) And of course some Austinites seem to think that grackles live nowhere but Austin. “The noble grackle, without a doubt, is as Austin as the endless variations of the taco,” reads one five-star review. I can assure you that we have millions of grackles and endless taco variations in Houston too.
Anyway, here’s a sampling of Austin grackle-hate:
- “Please stop looking at me that way.”
- “Stop flying 2 inches from my head inside Whole Foods. And never take my biscuit again you flying rat. I hate you.”
- And naturally, that Yelp staple, “I’d give them no stars if I could.” (And this from a city that adores freaking bats!)
There’s also an anthology of love:
- “Some might think that grackles merit a one- or two-star review. Oh, you’ve experienced better? You mean you’ve experienced a better inedible pest bird? Where? Certainly not amongst a flock of vacuous pigeons.”
- “They crap everywhere. Make a lot of noise. Are opportunists. I’ve decided they are a lot like poets.”
They’ve Inspired a Poetry Collection
I don’t know about his other habits, but one Austin poet certainly likes grackles. High school English teacher James Brush has written an illustrated collection of odes to the great-tailed grackle (and another reviled avian) called Birds Nobody Loves: A Book of Vultures and Grackles.
I’ll close with his prose-poem entitled “God Hates Grackles”:
They drove down from some mega church in Kansas with signs reading, “God hates grackles,” and “Grackles spread disease & crap on everything.” One little girl with blond pigtails tied with blue ribbons carried a sign saying, “No more icky turds.” They marched up and down the street outside the capitol chanting verses from Leviticus about unclean birds, occasionally stopping to extol the virtues of godly American fried chicken and turkey club sandwiches. From their trees, the grackles watched with little interest. They heard the repetitive nuk-nuk-nuk of the chanters and wondered at the rusty-hinge noises they made on the street below but mostly, they preened their shiny purple feathers and craned their necks toward the open sky above.
This went on for most of the afternoon and as the heat increased, the protesters grew more desperate, more willing to go beyond the veil of free speech. One man cast a stone. There was a moment’s pause as the world waited for the grackles to craft a response. Seconds grew to minutes, and the protesters glanced at one another, nervous, waiting. Suddenly all the grackles exploded skyward in a storm of wings and wild hallelujahs. The protesters watched with squinted eyes as the birds flew ever higher, each beat of their dark wings carrying them deeper into the sky and closer to God than anyone on the street below could imagine.
Blinded by the summer sky into which the grackles had disappeared, the protesters fumbled for their signs, packed them back on the bus, cursing the ugly grackles for their filthy ways and for not being blue birds or cardinals. Resentful and wishing that they too had wings and beautiful iridescent plumage, they drove back north, never once leaving the ground.