Austin is home to two main grackle species, the common grackle and the — ironically — much more common great-tailed grackle.
These two species, however, wear five different looks: two male, two female and one juvenile.
We’ll start off with the descriptions found on All About Birds, the popular and easy to use website (allaboutbirds.org) maintained by the top-shelf Cornell Lab of Ornithology, then add on some other observations.
Male great-tailed grackle. “Long-legged, slender blackbird with a V-shaped tail, a flat-headed profile and a stout bill. Males are iridescent black with piercing yellow eyes.” In flight, it almost looks like the males use these magnificent tails as elementary rudders, but in fact they do well without them when the feathers are shed each fall. They use their size and beauty to great effect during mating dances — heads poked upwards — that make them look like escaped birds of paradise.
Female great-tailed grackle. “Long-legged, slender blackbird with a flat-headed profile. Females are dark brown above, paler below, with a buff-colored throat and a stripe above the eye.” Although less showy than the male, the female can be quite lovely. And they decide which puffed-up male becomes their mate.
Male common grackle. “Large, lanky blackbirds with long legs, a long tail and a long and heavy bill. Adult males appear dark overall, but have iridescent bluish head and bronzy body in good light.” They are also smaller and have shorter tails than the great-tailed males.
Female common grackle. “Lanky blackbird with long tail and heavy, long bill. Females are less glossy than males.” They are also darker and more uniformly colored than the female great-tailed.
Juvenile grackles. Given that adult grackles can be generally handsome birds, the young grackle is ugly, loud and demanding. Their heads are scraggly or almost bald. Their coloration is patchy brown, gray or black. One can almost detect their reptilian ancestors in this skinny “velociraptor” phase.
If those five looks are not confusing enough, there is also the boat-tailed grackle — recognized not so long ago as a separate species by a University of Texas professor — which sticks to the marshes of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the U.S. The main way to distinguish them from great-tails: Adult male boat-tails have dark eyes, while great-tails look more demonic with their penetrating yellow eyes.
However, top birder Victor Emanuel says boat-tails do not drift up to Central Texas. One less look to consider.
“Grackles are an example of a bird that is adapted to humans,” Emanuel says. “Great-tailed birds reached the Austin area, following cattle from Mexico, by 1920. They picked seeds and insects from cattle droppings, but then people built hamburger joints, and grackles found food around parking lots, and expanded even more.”
He says there has been a more recent, huge expansion since the 1930s expansion, aided by a warming climate. The great-tails now range as far north as Nebraska, Colorado and Nevada, while common grackles breed throughout most of southern Canada and even into the Northwest Territories.
“They have gone up from South Texas, north, north, north,” Emanuel says. “It’s the great-tailed that many people don’t like. They gather in the thousands with their droppings and their noise. If you are eating, glance over to talk to a friend, glance back, it’s taken something. Very fast.”
On the other hand, great-tails come with a beautiful purple color and interesting behavior, especially during spring mating season. Emanuel says birders from outside the grackle’s normal range can be very fond of them.
“Many years ago, when Laura Bush served as first lady of Texas, I led a boat trip on Town Lake as a fundraiser,” he says. “We went down the lake toward Longhorn Dam, and I pointed out the herons, the egrets, everything, including the great-tail. A friend teased me: ‘This is not a bird you need to point out.’”