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.



9 thoughts on “Adapt Like a Grackle

  1. Cow birds (on the northeast coast) do the same, as far as the nests and eggs go. They take over, by destroying the eggs the same way & laying their own. Loud bullies they are. They are greedy at feeders too. They will empty out a feeder in a heartbeat! We need to use selective feeders and feed to guard against them.

    • I remember cowbirds. And starlings. And mockingbirds that aren’t all the friendly either.
      All the greedy feeders that remind us that we can’t choose whatever we want–we live with what is in front of us.

  2. I like watching birds, too. I’m lucky to have more types of birds in my backyard — juncos, chickadees, blue jays, nut hatches, and crows. I’ve come to appreciate the intelligence of the crows, even if they’re not as beautiful as the smaller birds. I wonder if crows and grackles are related?

    • Grackles and crows are not related. Grackles are Passerines and Icterids; ravens and crows, also Passerines (because of the toes) belong to Corvus, Corvidae. So Grackles and Crows are both perching birds (2 toes front, one back), but after that, they are different. More than you asked for. We get all the song birds in winter. But summer is too hot for sensible birds and people (we call them snowbirds) that travel home when it starts to get hot.

    • That’s a fascinating question. The classifications go like this:
      Kingdom: Animalia (same)
      Phylum: Chordata (same)
      Class: Aves (same)
      Order: Passeriformes (same)
      Suborder: Passeri (grackles — crows don’t have a suborder. Flaw in the schema.)
      Family: Icteridae (Grackles) Corvidae (Crows)
      Genus: Corvus (Crows — grackles don’t have a genus. Another flaw in the schema.)
      Species: Grackle, Crow

      But the interesting part is that this is a taxonomy. A sorting task. One of the ancient ways humans try to manage large sets of diverse things we notice. As people learn more about, in this case, life forms, the taxonomy keeps getting revised. These classifications have been revised several times, to agree with Darwinian understanding, then cladistics, then phylogenetics, and most recently molecular sequencing.

      Clearly the idea of the taxonomy is more important to people than its contents. It’s an “assistive technology”, so to speak, because it helps us do something our minds don’t do very well at all: sweep thoughts together into discrete piles and keep them there. Our minds are much better at messing up “the piles” and rearranging things — constantly.

      We really like this assistive technology, though; it’s been very productive over the centuries. We’ve even expanded it and created even more powerful physical systems to provide even more assistance. At the moment we usually call these things “computers”. Their underlying function is the same: put things in piles and keep them there. Exactly what our minds don’t really do very well.

      And that’s why “artificial intelligence” is not really coming any time soon; we’re building systems that do filing instead of art.

      • Passeriforms are classified as perching songbirds, and to perch they must have at least two toes forward and just one in back. Crows got left off because the “song” isn’t exactly melodious. Even classifiers can get petty and weird.

        • All classification is arbitrary and incomplete. I have a sense that this is provable by extension from Gödel, but I don’t immediately see the proof.

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