Fastidious Grackles, Sad

The common grackle is a bird I have a love/hate relationship with. First, I think they're beautiful birds -- the males especially with their iridescent heads and big yellow eyes:

From Wikipedia. Link here.

What I don't like about grackles is their aggression. They are social birds so where there is one grackle there is a mob of them, and they crowd out other birds. At least from the bird feeder, where they will work together to quickly empty it: one or two birds will sit on the feeder, shoveling seed to the ground where the rest of the flock quickly gobbles it up. All of the other birds get nothing.


So in the morning if I hear grackles "talking" in the trees in my yard I'll skip filling the feeder. I'll fill it later in the day when I don't hear the sound of those noisy bullies.

But this post isn't about that. There are other things I like about grackles, like their showy courtship displays. This post isn't about that either.

It's about their habits when raising chicks.

Or should I say "habit" singular. Different bird species have different, um, "toilet procedures" when in the nest. The chicks of some species will poop over the edge of the nest to keep it clean. Others, like the house finches nesting on my front porch, will add their droppings to the nest edge:

The interior of the nest stays clean, but so does the ground below -- no telltale signs that a nest of tasty chicks is above.

Grackles have a different strategy: the youngsters produce little packets of their waste (called "fecal sacs") and the parents carry the little packages away from the nest. Interestingly, they almost always drop them over water, probably thinking the water will carry away the sacs erasing evidence of nearby nests.

I learned this a few years ago when I watched them flying and dropping the sacs into my stream:

This year though they've decided that the rocks of the pond are a more convenient place for deposits.

Personally I'd prefer that they'd spread these around and not pile them all in one spot, but at least they chose rocks that I can actually reach to clean once in a while.

I find this practice to be quite interesting, and I respect their cleanliness.

This morning though, I saw something on the poop rock that touched me:

A deceased grackle chick.

(Warning: If you're squeamish about death in nature, you may not want to continue reading -- a closer photo of the chick follows)

For some reason this got to me. I envisioned the parent finding their chick had died, carefully picking it up, and gently laying it upon the rock for the water to carry away.

Perhaps it was nothing like that though.

Maybe this chick was even alive when the parent decided that there were too many mouths to feed, and reduced the burden by abandoning this one, leaving it to its fate. I wouldn't put it past these aggressive birds.

But I'm going to stick to the more palatable theory that this was a "burial" of sorts, and it makes me a bit sad.

Maybe I'll go fill up the feeder now, even if I hear the squeaks, whistles and croaks of the grackles above.


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Mark and Gaz  – (April 29, 2012 at 2:40 PM)  

It may be a pest, but it is a stunning looking bird. (or maybe i'm just odd!!)

Gaz: Alternative Eden

Christine @ The Gardening Blog  – (April 29, 2012 at 4:11 PM)  

I also think its a beautiful looking bird - but I've seen how the Starlings here bully the smaller birds so I understand. It's sad to see the dead baby ...

Cat  – (May 1, 2012 at 9:06 AM)  

Grackles are not a favorite of mine, but like you I have to respect their ability to survive. They are tenacious and quite smart. Just a bit too noisy and way too aggressive for my taste. Every time my daughter hears me grumble about their presence she reminds me of how beautifully they've adapted to living in urban areas. Yeah, they are smart...didn't know about them carrying off their droppings. Interesting. I'll try to pay more attention to see if I can observe this habit.

Anonymous –   – (May 4, 2012 at 5:32 PM)  

I enjoy watching mine pick up bits of stale bread I've thrown out and then carefully dip it into the birdbath to moisten it a little. It makes the birdbath water icky, but I think it's so clever of them to do that.

sandy lawrence –   – (June 26, 2013 at 1:13 PM)  

Grackles are not my fave bird visitors, either, for the bullying reasons you mention, and here they are often accompanied by another annoying and greedy species - the Starling. Grackles are, indeed, fastidious and wash their food in the birdbath, as Anon mentions the bread crumbs above. They wash everything here - insects which sometimes escape into the water and seeds which sprout. And they're not just greedy with food. I've seen them run off Cardinals and Jays from their nesting sites after a three day battle for a large tree. Last spring, I rescued a Bluejay youngster just flown from the nest from two adult Grackles intent on pecking her to death. (Happily, I revived her and she was later reunited with parents.) Nature is oft times cruel, evidenced by the baby bird in your photos.

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