Don Torino's Life in the Meadowlands: A Grackle's Story

It seems that the only time I hear comments concerning the Common Grackle is when the evening news portrays them as swarming hordes of creatures bent on pecking your eyes out like from an old Alfred Hitchcock movie, or when I get calls from homeowners that are feeding the birds and want to know how to make them just go away and stop eating all their bird food. 

Well let me just start off by just saying I LOVE GRACKLES! Yes, I said it! I really do love the Common Grackle. Despite all their negative PR I relish the days when the Grackles cover my backyard, flocks descend upon the forests filling it with the loud buzzing calls and yes, even those upset phone calls when I get to tell folks that Grackles are so very cool and that they should be enjoyed.

Now I am not going to try to win you over by telling you how beautiful the Grackle really is with their wonderful glossy-blue iridescent colors and golden eye which gives them a very cool intense look; or tell you about some of the very unusual things they eat like crayfish, leeches off of turtles, frogs, mice and much less popular other birds ( pretty neat depending who you are ). But what I am going to tell you is my own personal Grackle story that I hope will make you see Grackles in a new and better way from now on.

It was a beautiful sunny Mother’s Day afternoon in the backyard of my wife Pat’s family home in Oakland. As everyone sat there talking about the family news of the day a Grackle flew into a nearby cedar and as Grackles do started to sound off loudly. But this Grackle seemed much more distressed; its cries were loud enough to bring it to the attention of even the many non-birders that relaxed on the deck trying  to talk over the now louder cries of this big black bird. “Don, whats that bird want?” someone asked me as if I could wave my hand and quiet it down.  

So now my curiosity made me approach the bird closer as I knew just from its erratic, unusual call that something was not right. But as soon as I got close the bird flew across the street to a nearby pond. Ok, I said to myself that is that. The bird is gone which now would just leave me guessing to the Grackle’s situation. But no sooner did I sit back down then the same Grackle retuned calling out even louder this time to the attention to everyone on our Mother’s Day celebration. 

So once again at everyone’s urging, as if I am the bird whisperer, I again approached the bird calling from the cedars. But again as I approached it flew from the tree across the street to the pond while still calling and crying away. And now for the second time I sat back down now more puzzled than ever. What did that bird want? 

I looked for a nest in the cedar tree that I thought it may be protecting but nothing was there and now totally puzzled I sat back down and tried to enjoy the sun and the family talk, but that did not last long.

Now for a third time the Grackle returned  screaming, wings flapping, with a sound of more desperation recognizable to the birder and the non-bird lover alike and again as I approached it made a beeline across the street and to the pond.  But this time I decided to follow this poor bird as best I could to maybe see what the worry and fear that seemed to grip this creature was all about.

The continued cry of the Grackle went nonstop as I crossed the street to the pond but now suddenly I heard two birds, one seeming higher pitched but just as desperate and  frantic as the first and it was then I realized what the alarm and panic was all about.

Baby Grackle

There hanging upside down by one foot from a chain link fence was a baby Grackle. Flapping and flailing away as the adult bird continued its raucous calls. I walked closer and gently flipped the little bird’s foot from the joining link in the fence careful not to break or injure the tiny leg of this fearful, thrashing baby who was trying even harder to get away from me. 

No sooner than I successfully flicked the little one from the fence the adult bird who now I recognized as the mother began following the baby along the ground trying to get some food in its mouth. 

As I watched them scurry along the fence and then closer the shrubby area of the pond and finally out of sight my common sense mind was not sure what I had just witnessed. Was this bird asking for help? Was it trying to get someone to follow it the way a dog does in a movie ?

I looked around partly in disbelief but mostly in total amazement. I shook my head and returned to the family gathering across the street. I sat down quietly trying over and over to process what I just experienced. Then someone asked, “What did that darn bird want?” Needed someone to help its baby, I quietly and reluctantly replied. 

I remember just getting some laughs and giggles and then the conversation turned to the Yankees and how lucky we were to have such a nice day. Till this day I try to process the events of this special Mother’s Day, still in some way attempting  to be sure I saw what I really saw and if I did then from that day on it would change everything as I understood it, as of course it has.

We need to forever discard any beliefs that wild animals are not highly intelligent or don’t  have feelings or emotions the way we know them. Needless to say although I loved birds from childhood I now know what  I just felt in my heart that all life is special no matter how rare or common and they want nothing more than to protect their family even if it means getting a human to help on occasion.

So the next time you see on the news a reporter acting as if a flock of Grackles is something to fear I hope you will recall my story and remember that the Common Grackle is not so common after all, and that all wildlife needs a helping hand every once in a while, even if it interrupts a family gathering and especially a Mother’s Day now and then.   

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