Nature Notes: Grackles

Grackles

Perhaps we could do without the Great Tailed Grackle! West Texas is blessed – according to birders who are intent on expanding their life lists as quickly as possible – a characteristic of most birders – or is cursed – according to those who know them better – by two of the three species of grackles which are found in Texas. 

One, the Common Grackle, has visited since 1961 when first reported by regional birders. The other, the Great-tailed Grackle is a relative newcomer. Both species began nesting in the area in the late 1970s.

Both grackles have about the same colonial courtship, nesting and feeding behavior. Both are very noisy, traveling in flocks that move restlessly from place to place. Wherever there are flocks of grackles, the birder can give up any idea of hearing or seeing any other bird. 

Great-tailed grackles are killers of small birds as well as anything that moves smaller than they are, be it insect, reptile or rodent. They also eat seeds. Great-tailed grackles decimate populations of more desirable birds, driving them away from their nests, eating their eggs and young. 

Great-tailed grackles roost in large numbers in small areas. This soon produces dying trees since their droppings damage and finally kill the trees, dreadful odors and very filthy areas that are a health hazard. 

Unfortunately, great tailed grackles are expanding their ranges – north to Iowa and west to California. Originally their range was only in south Texas and farther south into Mexico. 

This has put a great deal of pressure on other birds living in these areas. In Knox County, Texas, populations of Mississippi Kites, Mourning Doves and quail have decreased markedly near groves into which grackles moved. City parks are typical of other areas which grackles have invaded – the lack of species other than grackles there is obvious.

A review of several books discussing great-tailed grackles failed to reveal a good word for them except that one author, stated they eat crickets and grass-hoppers and are known to almost eliminate caterpillars from Louisiana soy bean plantings. From all other angles, it appears that Grackles are obnoxious and destructive without redeeming characteristics.

Some defenders of wildlife believe that all great tailed grackles not in their original range should be killed. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Part 21 updated in1989,
“provides certain exceptions to the act” and specifically states that it “establishes depredation orders which permit limited exceptions to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.” All species of cowbirds, grackles, and corvids, that is ravens and crows, are listed as those birds which can be killed when “found committing depredations upon ornamental or shade trees, agricultural crops, livestock, or wildlife.” 

This Federal law “does not authorize the killing of such birds contrary to any state law or regulation.” City and county ordinances also have to be observed, or special permits must be obtained. The law also states that killed birds may not be sold for food, decoration, or profit. And if asked, the defender of wildlife doing the killing has to be able to tell federal and state officials what depredations the killed birds were committing.

 In recent years many folks have become concerned about “exotic, or non-native, invasive species.” Millions of dollars have been spent on the removal of salt cedar, for example. Since the great tailed grackles have spread across half of the country, advocates of changing the laws concerning grackles state that they are indeed exotic invasive species that severely disrupt local ecologies. At present, such advocates have been only making such statements among the bird watching community, and have not sought publicity to take their cause to the general public.     

 Nature Notes is sponsored by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by KRTS Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas.