Quail Diaries: Grackle Interlude

More then ten years ago

Here are some things I saw in Costa Rica: Olive-Ridley back turtle arrivada, ant-birds following the track of an army ant colony’s march, vampire bat, white-faced capuchins, spider monkeys, tarantulas, mahogany tree, wild orchid, sloth, ant eater, sleeping trogon, currasow, hawk, vulture, owl, coatimundi, tree, mountain, moon, lightning, mist.


I was assigned a two-week field research project and, neurotically enough, I chose to follow the illustrious great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus), rather than chase any of the millions of the amazing found-few-other-places creatures that lived in the nearby rainforest.

The great-tailed grackle is a bird that likes to forage in towns and cow-fields. I spent my two weeks of study in areas of human habitation rather than the uninhabited areas of the cloud-forest— stomping back with the sticky remains of cowpies on my boots rather than mud from the pure soil of the jungle.

Why? and why? Why now and why then?

I write about this now because the grackles have come to southern California and are especially visible and active in Irvine. They were not there 10 years ago—their global range has expanded greatly in just a short amount of time. This is not entirely surprising as they had been expanding their range locally within Costa Rica in the years before my visit.

This grackle range expansion has been clearly linked to human development. When humans clear and build they remove the grackles’ nest predators and make grackle food resources more available. And of course, a steady northward movement of a species out of equatorial regions into more temperate zones is entirely consistent with the possible, though unproven, effects of global warming.

Any way. In California, I saw the grackles in a little shopping center. Here is one, photographed (poorly, by me) with an iphone

These grackles reminded me of the fabulous birds I followed in Costa Rica.

Why did I focus on grackles for my two-week project? Because they are incredibly cool…no, really, they are… they are social and active, with fabulous calls and clear sexual dichromatism (males are iridescent black, females are brownish). And I wanted to a behavior project—something very difficult to do short-term if you are working with a rarer and more cryptic species, one for whom you might only catch a glimpse of a single individual over an entire week period (e.g. antbird)—and that glimpse of the birds feet and wing as they fly away.

In deciding to go with the grackles, so to speak, I was forced to recognize that what interests me is less than the rarity or variety of a bird (although I love to see a new creature) but the behavior of the individual—this bird, in front of me, right now—what is it doing, what is it thinking (of course, I cannot answer this but it is underneath everything, at some level). I’d prefer to watch a crow walk around to marking off birds on a life list for which I’ve perhaps seen a tail flash by.

I would love to study antbird behavior, and I hold the dear hope that I will someday study elegant quail behavior, but ultimately I am interested in what I can do thoroughly in terms of behavioral observations with the caveat that I want these observations conducted on free-roaming, wild, beasties because I want to study a creature that has a life outside of the realm I create physically and mentally (in my own mind) for it.

Right now, the California quail is clearly the species I am most focused on; but those grackles, and their maligned cousins the crows, ravens and starlings, will always fascinate me. These are some of the birds we love to hate, and the fact that they are spreading, because of our actions, make us hate them even more. We humans love a good scapegoat, a furred or feathered one, a cat or cowbird, pig or grackle, it’s all the same to us. But I can’t buy into that, for any of these creatures, but especially for these beautiful black and brown birds, squealing and crying and breaking through the air with their flashing voices and their glowing wings.


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