America has a lot of really lovely birds that we don’t get in Britain. Hummingbirds. Cardinals. Bluebirds. Scissortails. Orioles.
The grackle isn’t one of these.
They’re loud. They’re raucous. They look weird. They sound horrendous. They’re quarrelsome. They congregate in massive numbers on telephone wires and defecate on anything foolish enough to be underneath.
Round about this time every year, North Texas is plagued with millions of these awful birds, migrating south from more northerly latitudes.
Apparently Texas is their wintering-grounds; they aren’t passing through on their way somewhere else. And even for someone with a love for misunderstood and generally dismissed creatures, I have to agree with the majority on this one. Grackles are not nice birds.
For my non-US readership, the males are ugly, long-tailed black birds that look like some form of diminutive crow, but without the dignity. The females are the same, except brown and with shorter tails.
Members of the crow family have a bad reputation. Ravens, thanks to their use by the Norse as a totem animal, give us words like “ravening” and “ravenous”. Crows are widely viewed as birds of ill omen, and their English collective noun is “a murder of crows” (as cut-down crow-looking things, I’m proposing “a vandalism of grackles”). Magpies are known for thievery. Yet most of these I’m prepared to give their due.
Except the grackle.
I’m sure it has its admirers. People like odd things; as a case-in-point, I like sloths. But the grackle really sometimes makes me wonder what God was thinking.
I mean, it has to have some virtues, right? What is the key to understanding and appreciating the awful grackle?
The oracle of knowledge known as Google informs me that despite their appearance, they aren’t in the crow family at all, which might explain some of their weird looks while I keep thinking of them as corvids. They’re apparently in the same family as cowbirds, which we don’t have in Britain, and the New World orioles, which we don’t have either. The males’ longer tail feathers are probably their most weird-looking feature, due to the way they seem to fold their tails closed in a sort of inverted V for flight. I have no idea why they do that; their mating displays always take place on the ground, with all the males fluffing out their feathers and chasing one another around before prancing in front of the drab females with their heads held straight up. And all the while making their horrible grackle noises.
Personally, I’d probably forgive them a lot of their weird looks and quarrelsome nature if they were either quieter or more pleasant-sounding, but grackles aren’t like that. The typical call of the grackle is somwhere between a whistle, a scream, a clatter and a caw, and they make these raucous noises at full volume and at every apparent opportunity.
I have to say that even for birds, grackles have an impressive range of vocalisations. OK, it all sounds like a car alarm being fed into a trash compactor, but there’s an incredible diversity of sounds there.
This, in itself, bespeaks intelligence.
All the birds and animals we consider cleverest have diverse call ranges and the ability to make lots of different sounds. Even among humans, we usually consider erudition to be a sign of intelligence.
However, we don’t often appreciate this kind of intelligence in animals. Parrots and apes are the emblematic animals for uncreative copying of one’s betters; mockingbirds’ name says it all: mockery, not communicative ability.
And we get suspicious of people who are “fast talkers”, mistrusting those whose persuasive ability finds its expression in words, because it can so easily be misused.
There are hypocrites, liars, manipulators, conmen, agitators, demagogues. Even the word “politician” has become a term of contempt, denoting an insincere person who uses obfuscating and duplicitous language to avoid saying anything of substance, or who changes their position with the winds of public opinion.
At least grackles can’t be accused of lying. They’re garrulous, but they’re fairly straightforward birds. If they don’t like something, you’ll know about it.
Maybe grackles are a sort of reminder that not everything evil is ugly. This is a salutary reminder after the witches and goblins and dead things of the eve of All Saints.
The Bible warns us that some of the most deadly evil is that which looks good. Satan himself goes about in disguise, looking like an angel of light. The forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was “pleasing to the eye and desirable for gaining wisdom”. And as if in deliberate contrast, Jesus “had no beauty or majesty that might attract us to Him”.
As with Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings, “all that is gold does not glister”, nor is everything shiny to be prized as gold.
Sometimes the truth isn’t what we want to hear. The Pharisees didn’t want to be told that righteousness wasn’t quite what they thought it was. A conspiracy theorist doesn’t want to believe that his or her pet theory may be full of logical holes big enough to sail a carrier battlegroup through. It cuts both ways; sometimes the truth that there is no reason for fear can be as difficult to hear as the truth that We Are Wrong.
Grackles sound awful, and sometimes, so does the truth. Historically, Iron Age kings often executed those messengers who brought them news they did not want to hear; typically this only made their eventual defeat that much more complete, because they were unprepared for it.
It takes humility to recognise truth when it comes in grackle form, all raucous noise and grating unpleasantness. But truth is truth; we dare not dismiss it just because we don’t like the nail polish of the one who tells it to us.