The Underbirds

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

Imagine your ears being assaulted by the sound of a large amount of chain dropping on concrete, then being scraped along the cement. I heard this sound recently, coming from the top of a nearby fir tree. It reminded me of Scrooge hearing the ghost of Old Marley, dragging his chains of life. Yes, our Common Grackles have returned from the south.

The word 'grackle' comes from the Latin, graculus, referring to a Jackdaw, a European crow-like bird. I've had friends refer to grackles as 'crackles', perhaps in connection with the fry-pan spitting 'chuck' call they make when flying overhead.

Grackles fall in the blackbird family, along with Red-wings, orioles, and meadowlarks. Users of Roger Tory Peterson's field guide, learn to separate grackles from starlings and Red-wings by their long tails. Of course, this causes another identification problem. Many bird books show the Boat-tailed Grackle on the same page with Common Grackles. People are forever deciding our Common Grackles are "boat-tailed". And they are, they are just not Boat-tailed Grackles.

Oh dear, this is getting quite muddled! Common Grackles are described as being 'keel-tailed'. That is, their central tail feathers are held lower than the rest. The tail wedges up on both sides. So, even 'Common' Grackles have tails like the bottom of a dory. We never promised you this would be an easy business.

When I first learned about grackles in the early 50's, there were two species to worry over -- Purple and Bronzed. Grackles are mainly black, with piercing yellow eyes. But when the sun hits their bodies, the colors iridesce. One moment black, then green, then purple, then bronze. So we used stare at our grackles, trying to decide if the purple color went down on the back, or if there was enough bronze. Eventually both species were checked off, but we never felt good about it. Now, Purple and Bronzed have been 'lumped' into the Common Grackle.

Grackles are relatively large birds, long and skinny. From tail to beak, they average 12 and one half inches. They are so large, some people call them 'Crow Blackbirds'. The females are a little smaller but look the same, glossy black all over, with yellow eyes. Their flight pattern is rather direct, arrowing along without a lot of ups and downs.

So, why are they "underbirds"? I know people who enjoy grackles, because they're the absolute underbird. Their yellow eyes give them an angry look that only their Mother could love, and their voice is as pleasing to the ear as chalk scraped on a blackboard.


We expect our grackles to be with us starting in early March. Once they arrive, the males immediately start posturing, one against the other, pointing their bills up in the air. It seems like whoever is taller is superior. Every now and then, they erect all their feathers and swell up like balloons, emitting the rasping, clanking sound I mentioned earlier. The best thing that can be said about the grackle's song is that it doesn't last very long. Earlier described as like a heavy chain being dropped and dragged, it has been written as " kuwaaxza'. It's definitely a hair-raising sound. This is all part of the mating process and somehow determines who is going to do what, to whom!!

Right now, grackles are clustering on the wires on Lower Orange Street, near the Rotary. They are early nesters and are very social, nesting in the evergreens near there. Another place they like to nest is the bamboo grove near the corner of West Sankaty and New Streets in 'Sconset. The grove has been cut this year so it will be interesting to see what those birds do.

Grackles usually limit themselves to one brood a year, with up to six eggs in a clutch, generally finishing their reproductive chores by mid-June. So although they are hard on the ear, they disperse fairly early in the summer. They typically leave Nantucket in late November, although some struggle on through the whole winter. They are uncommon north of D.C. in the wintertime.

In the autumn, watch for them to build into huge flocks, mixing with Red-wings, Starlings, and Cowbirds. Their flights sometimes darken the sky and often people proclaim them as pests because of the problems associated with so much bird guano. These flights are a dramatic avian phenomenon and signal the beginning of the cold season when they leave us in early November.


George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.