"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, April 6, 2015

Let's embrace the grackle as spring symbol

The agreeable grackle
The months of March and April, much as they present a harbinger of more agreeable weather, are really non-descript. Let's admit it: Many days are no more palatable for outdoor activity than in the depths of winter.
The temperature isn't quite warm enough. The wind is totally hostile. The ground is muddy. One hardly feels like taking a bike trip out by the Pomme de Terre River. I congratulate those hardy souls who have done that.
People get excited about seeing the first robin. My father had a special fondness for the grackle. I suspect very few people have an attachment to that black bird. I can see why my father did. They show up in groups. They enthusiastically go after any bird feed you put out. They seem full of energy. They are such a sure sign of spring. Where have they been all winter? Their arrival means we can feel assured that winter's gray days are fading.
I am watching a bunch of grackles in our back yard as I'm writing this. There are juncos too. Juncos hang around in winter.
Niemackl Park near Herman is a great place to observe birds. There is a cacophony of bird sounds there. I have heard that if you're lucky, you might spot a scarlet tanager there. We have had an indigo bunting in our back yard. My biggest thrill was to see a "gray jay" visiting us a few years ago. It was well out of its normal range.
There is an iridescent blue tone toward the grackle's head. Look closely and you really will see an aesthetic splendor. I'm sure their long black tail helps them fly with precision. The bright golden eyes make them endearing. We're delighted in the summer to see the "little grackles" hopping toward their parents, flapping their wings and getting attention so they might be fed.
The female builds the nest. Couples have two broods per year. The eggs are greenish white with brown markings. The incubation period is 13-14 days. Grackles are present year-round along the southern edge of Minnesota, otherwise these birds wisely head south. 
The grackle usually nests in small colonies of up to 75 pairs. It is a farmer's companion, feeding out in the fields. The name comes from the Latin word "graculus," meaning "to cough," for its loud raspy call. Look for them flying in a very level fashion rather than undulating up and down. It holds its tail in a keel-like position during flight. It has large mouth muscles for prying crevices apart to locate insects.
I have found Niemackl Park to be a terrific place for observing the yellow-headed blackbird. It's call is a trademark: low, hoarse, raspy or metallic. We learn the bird nests in deep water marshes, so maybe that's consistent with the environs around Niemackl.
One negative for bird watching at Niemackl is wood-ticks. I had to pull over to the side of the road on my way home from Niemackl once. I had to deal with those most unsavory pests. Grassy trails are reportedly bad news for picking up ticks.
The red-wing blackbird prefers more shallow water in its environment. The red-winged can of course be a hellish nuisance with how it can "dive-bomb" people. Watch out for this along the service road heading to McDonald's on the north edge of town. I mentioned the problem at McDonald's once, whereupon Oscar Brandt smiled and scolded me: "You're getting too close to their nests!"
Blackbirds don't inspire feelings of romance among people, not like robins. But I'm rather inspired by my late father to feel excited by the initial sight of the grackles in spring. He's smiling from heaven.
I'm writing this post during the Minnesota Twins' 2015 opener. As a kid I was hugely excited about the major league baseball opener. Right now the only reason I'm watching is for a lack of alternatives on the tube. I still haven't been to Target Field. I suspect the price of concessions there is exorbitant. I remember in the book "Ball Four" by Jim Bouton, about the 1969 season, he cited prices for various things at the Astroworld Hotel, Houston, and he thought they were outrageous. They were outrageous at the time. Today they'd hardly raise anyone's eyebrows.
Frankly I can't fathom why so many people spend so much money watching baseball games. I say this as a long-ago fanatic for the sport. I got emotional about the game. Today I'm relieved not to feel that kind of pull any more. It's a relief not to have your emotions invested in a sports team.
Whatever, it is spring. We're still in that non-descript time of year before we can really revel in warmth. Call it a twilight time or buffer time. The grackles stimulate our senses. I welcome them more than I welcome Opening Day. They remind us of the reliable change of seasons. It's an assurance that life goes on as it should.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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