Of all backyard bird sounds, perhaps the least musical is the song of the Common Grackle, a blackbird recognized by its long tail and iridescent plumage. The male’s song, given as he leans forward, puffs out his feathers, and cocks his wings, sounds like a raspy squeak. Groups of courting males often gather in evergreens or other trees, with males performing their song-spread displays in front of eager females (females sing less frequently and usually in response to the song of the mate).
In 1907, naturalist Clarence Hawkes described such a group: “I heard a great commotion in an old elm near the house. It was not a song, although there were many voices, but the noisiest medley of squeaks, squawks, pipes, whistles, and other sounds too queer to name.” To commemorate his experiences, Hawkes penned a wonderful little poem:
“The Grackles are here and that is quite clear.
The morning is ringing, not with their singing,
But with their talking, they’re piping and squawking
Some scandalous ditty the more then’s the pity.
The Grackles are here, that’s plain to your ear …”
Of course, Mr. Hawkes was wrong on one count — those pipes and squawks definitely comprise the song of the species and are quite likely very appealing to their avian ears. Check out the following recording that I made way back in 1990, featuring small group of grackles excitedly singing. It’s “music” to my ears, but I admit that I’m tuned differently than most people:
Common Grackles in a tree, giving song-spread displays. 16 April, 1990, Connecticut Hill WMA near Ithaca, NY. © Lang Elliott.
p.s. The video footage was gathered almost exactly a year ago, at the nearby Cornell Plantations Arboretum. It was breezy and noisy with traffic, so I had to lip-synch in post, using recordings I made many years ago, set against an appropriate local ambient soundscape. Works pretty good, doesn’t it? Producing great videos of singing birds often requires synching-in the sound in post (in the studio). It would be great if I could always get excellent recordings right when the videos are made, but that requires perfect weather, perfect location, no interfering loud nature sounds, and last but not least … a talented field recordist assistant!
Lovely! thanks for this, so glad I found your site.
Thank you Mary Lou!
Thank you for this Lang! I enjoy the grackles – they come and make a ring around our platform feeder, dressed in their best iridescence, they look to the sky, pointing their beaks as far as they can, and take the biggest breath their bodies can muster and let out their call. It makes me laugh every time – it’s a wonderful gift.
Nicole: They must use up a tremendous amount of energy singing, especially with all the body action involved. But I guess mating is worth it, right?
Great beak-syncing. I wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t told us.
It does look pretty good, I have to admit!
I LOVE Grackles! Many of them nest in the relatively urban area in which I live, and I get to watch their displays every day. They return to the back yards about the same time that the Red-winged Blackbirds return to rural marshes, ponds, and meadows.
When I was watching and listening to the video just now, one of our cats (who knows Grackles well from the indoor side of the window), ran to the window to look for him, even though it is 10:20 PM!
Once again, great content! one question, in the background on the video there is a bird call… the rhythm is “weeep weeep weep wep weep weep” do you know what that is? I’ve heard it many times and can’t seem to ID it.
Tufted Titmouse … the bird who gives whistling songs throughout?
Thank you – that may be it, I will keep trying to “see ” it 🙂
oh and btw, love the new page layout!
Thank you for this little bit of nature. I love most birdsong and much human musicmaking but I must submit that these creatures sound hideous to me. I like your ID photo with your had floating on lily pads. You, also, are an intriguing creature.
Thanks Susanne … I agree that I am an intriguing creature, webbed feet and all!
My site has been down for two days. I’m just getting it up and running again. Still more work to do!
Such an interesting “song”! But a pretty bird to say the least!