Friday, December 02, 2005

Grackles attack a Redtail

Common Grackle - Sept. 18, 2005
Photo by Lincoln Karim

When I take beginners for bird walks I find they have trouble telling starlings from grackles. Both birds are dark, somewhat irridescent, and both come in big flocks. Here's a fool-proof way to tell them apart, I tell them: Grackles have a BLACK BILL and a YELLOW EYE [see picture above. Starlings have a YELLOW BILL and a BLACK EYE. Experienced birdwatchers can hardly understand how anyone can confuse birds that seem so different. But they've forgotten how difficult the sport of birdwatching can be, at the beginning.

Though grackles are very common and consequently not held in high esteem by most birdwatchers, I consider them one of the most beautiful birds in the park. Perhaps that's why I've been focussing so much attention on the flock of grackles that have been roosting at the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel , together with an equal number of starlings, for the last few months. But the sheer number of them is most compelling. The numbers are beginning to dwindle, but until a few weeks ago I'd say there were at least a thousand birds roosting in that single area.

I had thought they'd be gone by now. The ten Bradf0rd Callery Pear trees surrounding the fountain have finally turned a burnished gold-brown. The remaining leaves look dry and wrinkled, and almost half of them are gone. Yet the flocks of birds are still roosting there. They arrive a little before sunset -- 4:29 tonight -- and keep arriving for the next ten or fifteen minutes. Since the fountain has been turned off and little Christmas trees with lights now stand where the water once flowed , the bird din is very audible for passers-by.. And of course the visible traces of the roosting birds-- whitewash on the cobblestones below their roost trees -- also give evidence of birds' presence.

I can't imagine they'll be there much longer. Within a week the trees will be leafless. Then, I guess, it's off to their winter roost in North Carolina or thereabouts, where I'm told unimaginable numbers of grackles spend the winter. It will be time to pay more attention to the park's year-round residents, red-tailed hawks for instance. The redtail breeding season is almost upon us. This should be a very suspenseful winter and spring, considering the wild events of 2004.

Yesterday I saw a great flock of starlings and grackles harass a hapless redtail who happened to sail over their roosting trees just as they were beginning to converge for the night. Though the hawk was hugely bigger than each individual one of them, as a unified flock they managed to pursue him -- it was probably Pale Male or Junior --and drive him deep into the park. Then the flock returned, victorious, and tucked in for the night at the Pulitzer Fountain pear trees. Power in numbers indeed.