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 Grackle Sonogram 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!

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