Adapt Like a Grackle

Grackles are not likable birds. They are pretty enough–big males, glossy black with oil-slick rainbows flashing across the feathers. A sharp yellow eye. In the case of the great-tail grackles, they have tail feathers so big that they have trouble flying in a strong wind.

great_tailed_grackle_3Grackles are thieves and villains. They eat the eggs of other birds, eat newly hatched bird babies, or worse, fling them out of the nest, and lay their own eggs in other birds’ nests.

They are clever mimics, making both ear-splitting screeches and the sound of water running in a brook. They thrive because they are adaptable. And I have a group of them in my neighborhood–maybe 100, to judge by the settling down noises they make at sunset. Grackles, pigeons, Mexican doves and hummingbirds are the only birds here in the summer, so I make do.

A week ago, I noticed a grackle on my neighbor’s roof, parading around the vent stack on the chimney. My office has a window overlooking the street, so the grackle became an object of observation. For whatever else they are, grackles are smart and adaptable.

The capped chimney throws a shadow, and in Phoenix in the summer, shade is valuable. So is stucco, which is much cooler than pavement or cement. The grackle began to spend time in the shade of the chimney vent.

grackleWhen the air conditioning comes on, the cool air in the house is pushed up the chimney. It takes a while (because cool air sinks), but it does rise eventually.

The grackle noticed this, and when the air cools, he presses himself against the vent, stretching his head and neck up, cooling as much of his chest as he can. As I said, they are smart.

This morning, he got smarter. Now, when the neighbor’s air conditioner starts, the grackle flies in and settles in to cuddle up to the vent and cool off. I can’t hear the neighbor’s air conditioner, but the bird was arriving and leaving regularly, so I went outside and waited. Within 30 seconds of the air conditioner starting, he flies in. It’s the same one, because he chases off any other bird. Adaptable and smart.

He knows where it’s cool. He knows how to take care of himself. A survivor in the Arizona heat of summer.

–Quinn McDonald is a naturalist and writer who appreciates adaptation, wherever it occurs.