The pecking order at the birdfeeders has changed now that spring has brought new birds into the area. For the most part, the best spot on the feeder goes to the biggest one there. Birds that are approximately the same size may have to show some aggression to get what they want. The red-winged blackbirds and cardinals will give way to the more aggressive blue jays, while red-belled woodpeckers and mourning doves will stand their ground against most all birds to maintain their space at the feeder.
Some birds, like the chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch and Downy woodpecker, boldly to sneak pieces of seed from the feeder, under the nose of a larger bird. This tactic works well for them without aggression. These three birds were the only ones at the feeder until four beautiful grackles showed up and took over. All the birds, including the blue jays, keep their distance while the grackles eat.
Common grackles are now returning to their northern nesting grounds. They are half again as big as the red-winged blackbirds and are very noticeable. They like to strut around in the short grass of a mowed yard, searching for insects. In the spring, the males constantly display to each other in an attempt to prove who is the most beautifully dressed, and the best singer.
I'm always startled at how striking the male grackle is in his iridescent, purplish black feathered suits with extra long tails. His long beak points from a penetrating yellow eye. As beautiful and colorful as these birds are, it's the yellow eye that draws your attention.
It's courtship season, so the bold males will display their feathers to each other, at times letting our a courtship call that is hard to describe — kind of a musical-sounding "cluck." Audubon's Land Birds Guide describes the common grackle's song as "a variety of loud notes, mostly harsh, guttural clucking and chattering sounds, interspersed with deep, whistled notes and squeaks. If you get the chance, take time to listen to the grackles and find out for yourself.
Soon the grackles will pair off and start their nest building; some have already started. Yesterday I saw a male grackle fly by with a long piece of grass trailing from his beak. He flew into a large spruce tree and disappeared among the branches. Pine trees of any size are favorites for grackles to build their nests in. I once discovered the nests of 100 pairs of grackles in the rows of a Christmas tree plantation. I've also seen four different pairs nesting at the same time in the branches of one large white pine.
If you're lucky enough to have grackles nesting nearby and you want to see what the nest looks like, be patient. In the fall, the empty grass nest will get wet and collapse into your yard.
Grackles sometimes get a bad rap from humans. Their large size, stark appearance, and bold behavior are often misinterpreted by folks who don't understand that grackles, too, serve nature.
The weather has been so nice that I've been able to do some garden work. There are even some new faces peeking through the ground. The acorn-sized bulbs that I planted last fall have produced several little grape hyacinths. Tulips and daffodils are poking up 2-3 inches high. Clumps of bluebells are emerging through the dead leaves, and the irises, too, are showing green spikes in the flowerbeds.
The wild nettles are 3-4 inches high now, and soon will be ready to eat. New spring nettles, steamed in a pot, make one of may favorite dishes — and I know how good they are for me.
The rain held off so that I could plant potatoes last week, on Good Friday. It's been years since I've been able to plant spuds this early. I'm grateful that the days are getting longer; it gives me more time to do the things I love.
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