I was coming off a Project FeederWatch count that would depress even the most optimistic bird feeding enthusiast: just 6 species and 17 individual birds observed over the 2-day count period. I even wrote a blog post about it, predicting the rest of the season to be disappointing in number and diversity of birds.
But there had been minor changes in the weather since my last count. Temperatures had turned much colder, with daytime highs just around freezing and overnight lows nearing single digits. Patchy snow covered the ground. Just north of us, a winter storm was in the forecast. Changes like these are perfect to help turn bird feeding activity up a notch.
I began my count just minutes after the 7:02am sunrise, and my initial look outside included 5 Blue Jays, 3 Black-capped Chickadees, a Dark-eyed Junco, and an American Goldfinch. I was optimistic - I had ten birds by 7:05, when I only had seventeen in 12 hours of counting the week before!
Then around 7:15, the noise began. "Kaak, kaak, kaak, kaak!", coming from the trees all around the house. High in the pines in the back, they looked like big black ornaments, sometimes 3 or 4 to a branch, every branch. In the maple to the east, they dotted every leafless limb. They crowded the plum tree right off the corner of the deck. At first, the Blue Jays perched amongst them, until the sheer number of intruders drove off even the most aggressive jay. Yea, Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" did come to mind.
There were well over a hundred of them, Common Grackles on the move. Grackles begin forming communal roosts in late summer, shortly after nesting, and typically migrate from our area in October and November. Migrating flocks in flight can look like long ribbons in the sky.
I don't know where they came from, perhaps a roost just north of us. Grackles leave their roosts at first light and these descended to my yard within 15 minutes of sunrise. Maybe the winter storm in the forecast got them on the move and the jay activity in my yard alerted them to an easy food source before they took flight.
They descended from the trees and became a black moving carpet over the entire yard. They crowded the gravel driveway, likely taking in grit to aid in digestion.
Interestingly, they didn't crowd the bird feeders, they just foraged on the ground. They were spooky, flying off to nearby trees with any movement, but returning to forage as soon as it seemed safe to return.
They didn't stay long, just 30 minutes or so. But that's all it took to put on an impressive display, sending me off to find out more about this common but often underappreciated bird.