The sorry tale of North America’s takeover by starlings is well known. But this continent has its own gregarious, iridescent black birds that rove around the landscape in enormous piratical bands. Grackles: they’re here one moment, gone the next. They descend on fields and gardens and woods in a great rush of whirring wings, scattering themselves over the vegetation restlessly, always as though wary or unwilling to stay. The sound of a few hundred grackles is beautiful too, and, much like the sound of starlings, a chorus of creaks, squeaks, whistles and pops.
A single grackle is a fetching bird, with shining back plumage that lights up with the sun. From a distance they appear electric blue or polished bronze; close up they’re all these colours and more, an animated oil slick. In this respect they’re reminiscent of corvids, though they belong to the family Icteridae, the New World blackbirds.
Stunning as a solitary grackle may be, though, it’s the wintering flocks that impress. Apparently they’re often referred to as a ‘plague’ or ‘annoyance’ – perhaps by farmers – but I think they deserve a better common name. The scientific name for common grackle is Quiscalus quiscula, so perhaps an inquisition of grackles would work. For indeed, they ask questions of every place they invade: where’s the food? Are there any predators nearby? And I find myself asking a question: why is the simple sight of a common species of bird doing what it has always done so thrilling?