Bird Watcher's General Store

The Heaviest Blackbird
08/07/15


Dear Bird Folks,

What is our heaviest blackbird? I just read in the paper that it’s actually the starling. Is that true? I’m asking because I don’t like to believe what I read in the paper.

– Dr. Joe, Brewster, MA

Full disclosure:

This question was actually asked by my doctor, whose real name is not “Joe.” I’m just trying to cover myself in case he doesn’t like my answer. I don’t want to end up on the wrong end of a rubber glove, if you know what I mean. I visited my doctor’s office because I had a blocked saliva gland (probably caused from constantly spitting at my neighbor’s cat). As the doctor poked around in my mouth with the gag stick (aka, tongue depressor), he randomly asked me about the heaviest blackbird. I tried to answer but between saying, “ahhh,” and trying to survive the gag stick, I couldn’t get much out. That’s when he told me the starling story. I just shook my head “no,” and the examination continued. Finally, I was advised on how to treat my affliction. And what is the cure for a blocked saliva gland, you ask? I was told to go home and eat candy, lots and lots of candy. Apparently, sucking on hard candy might help unclog my troublesome saliva gland. How about that? When this story gets out every five-year-old kid in America will be complaining about blocked saliva glands.

Sorry, Dr. Joe,

Weighing less than three ounces, the European Starling is not our heaviest blackbird. But even if it weighed three hundred ounces, it still wouldn’t be the heaviest blackbird. That’s because starlings aren’t blackbirds. Oh, starlings may have some black on them, but so do crows and cormorants and they aren’t blackbirds either. (There’s more to classifying birds than color.) North American blackbirds are a diverse family of birds, which includes such dissimilar-looking birds as Bobolinks, cowbirds, meadowlarks and orioles. Yes, those bright orange birds that we all desperately want in our yards are actually just colorful blackbirds. (Even in the bird world, orange is the new black.) But all of those aforementioned birds are lightweights compared to our heaviest blackbird. Want to guess what it is? Here’s a hint: It’s the piggy bird that my customers complain about the most. Did you guess it yet? Our heaviest blackbird is my seed-devouring buddy, the grackle. I think just by mentioning grackles I spoiled the day of half my readers. Hey, don’t blame me; blame Dr. Joe. He started the whole thing with his bogus starling story.

Readers can take some comfort in knowing that I’m not talking about the Common Grackle, the bird that attacks our Cape Cod feeders so often. In this case, I’m focusing on its Southern cousin, the much larger Boat-tailed Grackle. Weighing over a half-pound, this grackle is the heavyweight champ in the North American blackbird family. The male Boat-tailed Grackles weighs twice as much as “our” grackle and nearly three times as much as “your” starling, Dr. Joe. It’s important to note that only males of this species are the chubby ones. That’s because the females have kept themselves in shape and weigh 50% less than the males do. In addition to being lighter in weight, they are also lighter in color. While the male boat-tails look basically like large Common Grackles, the females are mostly light brown. Many confused folks think they are looking at two totally different species (like back when they saw Angelina Jolie dating Billy Bob Thornton).

In addition to the two sexes looking different from each other, the Boat-tailed Grackles also have bizarre nesting habits. Each spring most other songbirds form couples, establish a territory, build a nest and raise a family. Yet, this is not how things work in the crazy world of the Boat-tailed Grackle. Instead of pairing up, all the females join together in a flock and build their nests in a large colony. Frequently, these nests are built in bushes or a tree that is sounded by a protective barrier, such as a river or a pond filled with alligators (yup, that would keep me out). The females work alone, but the eager males are never far away. While the ladies are busy building their nests, the guys are actively displaying and showing off their stuff. Unfortunately for them, very few of these strutting males will get lucky. Even though the colony may contain several dozen nests, built by several dozen females, the females will mostly mate with one or two alpha males. The rest of the boys will be forced to hit the showers…the cold showers.

Boat-tailed Grackles breed from the Mid-Atlantic States all the way down to Texas, but their range is limited to the immediate coastal area. Thus, most Americans wouldn’t even know that this bird exists if it weren’t for the fact that they all go to Florida each winter. This is when many people become introduced to this giant member of the blackbird family. Hopefully, they will then realize that maybe our much smaller Common Grackle isn’t as bad as they first thought… or maybe not. Probably not.

It turns out you are right to question what you read in the newspaper, Dr. Joe. But you have to admit that there is a certain amount of irony associated with finding out what you read in the newspaper was wrong, according to a column you also read in the newspaper. Sometimes things just don’t make sense, like the time my doctor told me that I would feel better if I ate lots of candy. BTW: The candy treatment worked and I can spit once again, which is good news for me and bad news for my neighbor’s cat.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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