Great-tailed grackles have invaded Arizona. Flocks of these large, sleek blackbirds have laid claim to urban neighborhoods. I see them frequently hanging out at shopping centers and fast-food joints, looking for a quick take-out, whether a leftover French fry in a bag or a half-eaten donut on the ground.
Recently, they invaded my neighborhood. They also laid claim to my heart.
I love to watch them fly. Against a blue sky, their glossy black bodies are well defined. There speed is incredible. They are proficient aerialists, using their great tails for maneuvering. As they fly, they turn their tails vertically—like a bullet in the sky. When they choose to land, they spread their tail feathers horizontally like a fan, creating drag. Upon landing, they often squawk a greeting—or is it a defiant claim? It’s hard to say, since I don’t speak grackle.
I wish I did. They have so much to say and so many ways to say it. The other day after grocery shopping, I made the acquaintance of one perched in a tree by my parked car. He squawked at me as I approached. I squawked back at him. He screeched a return with an additional trill, as if to say, “Please, don’t attempt to imitate me. You’re no good at it.” I acquiesced and listened to his complicated serenade. It was quite entertaining because of its vocal variety.
According to a South American legend, grackles are indeed passionate, vocalizing the seven Great Passions: love, hate, fear, courage, joy, sadness and anger. I must agree. When I hear grackles vocalizing, I experience a range of feeling. My most frequent emotion is joy.
The great-tailed grackle is intelligent, cheerful, and adaptable. To many people, it is annoying, aggressive, and unwelcome. Not only are they noisy but they also tend to push out local birds. This is most likely because they are just a cut above most indigenous species.
Experiments conducted by animal behaviorist Corina Logan revealed the great-tailed grackle has “demonstrated behavioral flexibility” by solving the Aesop Fable paradigm.
This experiment involves a tube with food floating halfway so that the bird has to drop objects into the tube to raise the waterline to get at the food. Since I have seen the great-tailed grackle devise clever ways to raid trash at Wendy’s, I have no doubt that the bird is intelligent.
It is also omnivorous. I once observed an orchestrated raid at Kentucky Fried Chicken in which they flew off with bones in their beaks. Eww.
Beware the great-tailed grackle. He is smart, cunning, and coming to a shopping center near you.