In the beginning, the Mexican legend goes, Zanate, the Great-tailed Grackle, had no voice. This would not do. Being a tricksy and striving sort of bird, he stole himself seven songs from the sea turtle, leaving the turtles silent and himself bursting to the brim with chatter: tunes of joy and sorrow and rage. There is the tinkling, liquid murmur the birds make while bedding down on transmission wires and parking lot trees. There are the complex and tapping whistles, and the calls like the rending of sheet metal. And then there’s the showstopper: a looping crescendo that pleasantly combines the cock of a shotgun with the tones of an interstate car crash. It is a remarkable repertoire, and one that a subset of the human population hates.
Of the many birds that now thrive in American cities, few enjoy the Great-tailed Grackle’s distinctly polarizing reputation. Their detractors—humorless types, upset by the din of nature and the grackle’s dismissive attitude toward property rights—call them ugly pests. Grackle partisans, fewer in number but equally passionate, delight in the birds’ adaptability, style, and clownishness. In my home city of Austin, where Great-tailed Grackles are prolific and huge flocks congregate seemingly everywhere, the birds are something of a fascination and litmus test. They even enjoy a three-star average on the city’s Yelp page, appropriately compiled from mostly one- and five-star reviews. I fall happily into the latter camp. The Great-tailed Grackle, like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, suffers from an excess of personality, and this is the source of its charm.
Consider, then, this jolly little troublemaker. One of three species of grackles we have in the United States—the other two being the Common Grackle and the Boat-tailed Grackle—Great-tailed Grackles dominate Middle America and the West. Grackles are longer and lankier than your average songbird, with a swift-stepping, dinosaurian stride and distinctly penetrating stare. Female Great-tailed and Boat-tailed Grackles are a handsome wood-brown. And males of all three species are mostly black, but flashily so: Their iridescent feathers shimmer green or purple according to the angle of the light. While they can occasionally appear ragged, plucked, and worn, generally speaking, they are avatars of style.
Those unfamiliar with birds often mistake grackles for crows, or members of the extended crow family. Fair enough: Despite belonging to the new-world blackbirds, grackles have a strong corvid energy, exuding both intellect and mischievousness. (The word grackle even derives from the latin ‘graculus,’ originally referring to the jackdaw, a Eurasian relative of the crow. That the grackle has smoothly usurped the name seems somewhat in character.)
Like crows, Great-tailed Grackles spend much of their days loitering around city parks, suburbs, and green spaces, chattering and keeping a sharp eye out for a chance at something tasty. They are clever foragers: Great-tailed Grackles can solve Aesop’s Fable tests, dropping stones into a container of water in order to sufficiently raise the level to pluck out a prize; in the urban wild they carefully comb the grilles of parked cars for smashed insects. The birds are anything but picky eaters: seeds, fruit, insects, small lizards, minnows and tadpoles snatched from the shallows, mice and bats pulled from hiding holes, Barn Swallows caught on the wing, taco scraps, and french fries plucked with gymnastic dexterity from the unwary hand—the grackle dines on them all. Omnivorous is a gentle word, and opportunistic undersells it. We are lucky that the grackle’s appetite is constrained by its size.
Great-tailed Grackles are highly sociable, roosting together in huge flocks during the evenings, but by day they split into foraging bands, clustering around restaurants or wandering solo. Male grackles embody a curious mix of dignity and punchiness: Quarrels over food can be genuinely nasty; disputes over territory and affairs d’amor, meanwhile, are resolved by arching their heads and flashing their nictitating eyelids at one another in an oddly genteel salute, like two swordsmen going through formalities in order to put off a duel. They turn boorish during the breeding season, puffing themselves up into big balls of chattering, shrieking feathers to pursue prospective mates. Female grackles seldom seem impressed by these displays, but then female grackles seldom seem impressed by anything.
What makes Great-tailed Grackles particularly interesting, however, is how perfectly comfortable they are around people. All three of our grackle species can be spotted in urban areas, but the Great-tailed thrives among humans. And in that sense, the bird is something rare in North American ecology: a native species that has adapted to urban life with absolute and slightly terrifying gusto. By contrast, the majority of familiar urban birds in America are naturalized transplants, hailing from Europe—sparrows, starlings, pigeons—while the North American songbirds that get by in cities do so by necessity rather than preference.
Arguably, the Great-tailed Grackle—also called the Mexican Grackle—is one of the New World species that has profited the most by human spread. Originally hailing from the jungle lowlands of Central America, the Great-tailed Grackles were brought into Central Mexico for their feathers under the reign of the conquering Mexica emperor Ahuitzotl. The birds happily bred in the plazas of Tenochtitlan, found Central Mexico to their liking, and eventually Texas as well. Between 1880 and 2000, their range expanded a staggering 5,530 percent, following agricultural and urban corridors. The Great-tailed Grackle now can be found from Colombia up into California and over to Minnesota. Beyond food, there’s nothing this grackle likes quite so much as a plaza with a few handy trees—which is to say, in much of urban America, parking lots. At dusk they gather in vast numbers, filling the air with a rush of conversation, cooing, and curses. (These roosts can sometimes reach an intimidating size, as in the case of a Houston supermarket parking lot that provided fodder for local news and some uncanny viral videos.)
They are, in short, thoroughly urbanized birds. This, I suspect, is partially what makes some people uncomfortable with the Great-tailed Grackle, and why I in particular love them: They regard humanity with absolutely no reverence whatsoever. They have the measure of us, and the cities we’ve built for ourselves. Pigeons bumble along sidewalks and nest under overpasses, while titmice and cardinals cluster at feeders. Grackles stalk the street like it belongs to them. They give ground before people and cars as a matter of practicality, not respect; they go where they like, sing and defecate where they please. No gods, no masters, they say with their glittering eyes. They are the patron bird of anarchists and poets. And why not? Zanate stole himself seven songs from the sea turtle, and he goes on singing them, no matter how much people tell him to shut up.