Thursday, November 16, 2017

A chattering, a cackle, a plague

For a few weeks in late October, at different times of the day, a raucous cacophony compels me to go outside to view an autumnal spectacle. I am in awe of this sight! A large flock of common grackles descends on the garden. Hundreds of the birds are paddling in the pool cover, picking through leaf litter, rummaging in the gutters, and perching in noisy numbers in the tall oak trees. Their rasping, scratchy, squeaky sound is quite deafening for all of ten minutes. And then, the squawking stops as some leader or a combined intelligence summons the flock to take flight. There is a perceptible whoosh, almost a roar, as a multitude of wings beats together and the birds fly past me to another location. The sun glints from an iridescence on feathers and these powerful fliers swoop with great speed through the canopy. 

The collective name for a flock of grackles is a chattering, a cackle or a plague. “A big velvet wave” is another apt description that I have read. I imagine thousands of black feathers made luxurious by a purple, peacock blue, emerald or bronze sheen. Their dark shadows and loud chattering can remind you of Hitchcock’s birds. But I think individually they are rather handsome and have such an air of self-assurance, with an intense golden eye and a jaunty strut. Grackles are gregarious and these garrulous gatherings in the fall are preparation for a southerly migration. It’s safety in numbers as large traveling flocks are more likely to discern danger and find areas for forage. I have witnessed them in early spring as they return from overwintering grounds.  A chattering of black birds in bare branches against a blue spring sky often falls silent. Every bird is still, heads cocked as if listening intently, for a hawk perhaps? 

The beak of a grackle is adapted for omnivorous foraging. A sharp ridge or “keel” inside the beak is used to cut through acorn shells like a can-opener and barbs at the back of the tongue prevent live prey from escaping. They wade in water to catch small fish and have been known to steal worms from the mouths of American robins. Many a garden pest, such as caterpillars, grasshoppers, Japanese beetles and house sparrows, are a part of their diet. They benefit by being close to human habitation and will follow a plow to catch soil invertebrates and mice, or will roost near mall parking lots to feast on discarded fast food. 

The plague moniker is most probably given by farmers, whose corn crops have been decimated by hosts of grackles, causing millions of dollars worth of damage. On writing this missive I think I have solved the mystery of my denuded Indian corn ornament, which I hang every fall by my front door. For the first time in many years, and coinciding with this season’s numerous cackles of grackles, all three cobs have been pecked clean of kernels. Resourceful birds indeed!