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Great-tailed Grackle

Quiscalus mexicanus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: ICTERIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A big, brash blackbird, the male Great-tailed Grackle shimmers in iridescent black and purple, and trails a tail that will make you look twice. The rich brown females are about half the male’s size. Flocks of these long-legged, social birds strut and hop on suburban lawns, golf courses, fields, and marshes in Texas, the Southwest, and southern Great Plains. In the evening, raucous flocks pack neighborhood trees, filling the sky with their amazing (some might say ear-splitting) voices.

ML Essential Set
Bird Festivals

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Male
Length
18.1 in
46 cm
Wingspan
22.8 in
58 cm
Weight
6.7 oz
190 g
Female
Length
15 in
38 cm
Wingspan
18.9 in
48 cm
Weight
3.7 oz
105 g
Relative Size
Exceptionally long-tailed and large songbird. Much smaller by weight than an American Crow, but about the same length.
Other Names
  • Quiscale à longue queue (French)
  • Zanate mexicano, Sanate/Clarinero (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • In winter, enormous flocks of both male and female Great-tailed Grackles gather in “roost trees.” These winter roosts can contain thousands of individuals, with flocks of up to half a million occurring in sugarcane fields in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley.
  • In 1900 the northern edge of the Great-tailed Grackle’s range barely reached southern Texas. Since the 1960s they’ve followed the spread of irrigated agriculture and urban development into the Great Plains and West, and today are one of North America’s fastest-expanding species.
  • The Great-tailed and Boat-tailed grackles have at times been considered the same species. Current thinking is that they are closely related, but different species.
  • Because they’re smaller and require less food, female Great-tailed Grackle chicks are more likely than their brothers to survive to fledging. Likewise, adult females may outlive males, resulting in a “sex-biased” population with greater numbers of females than males.
  • Although you’ll usually see them feeding on land, Great-tailed Grackles may also wade into the water to grab a frog or fish.
  • Great-tailed Grackles—especially females—learn to recognize individual researchers working in their breeding colonies, and will react with a chut alarm call when they see the researcher, even away from the nesting site.
  • The oldest Great-tailed Grackle (based on banding records) was 7 years 9 months.

Habitat


Town

Where people have gone, Great-tailed Grackles have followed: you can find them in both agricultural and urban settings from sea level to 7,500 feet that provide open foraging areas, a water source, and trees or hedgerows. In rural areas, look for grackles pecking for seeds in feedlots, farmyards, and newly planted fields, and following tractors to feed on flying insects and exposed worms. In town, grackles forage in parks, neighborhood lawns, and at dumps. More natural habitats include chaparral and second-growth forest. You’re unlikely to see them in dense forests, or in deserts or prairie habitats that lack access to water.

Food


Omnivore

Great-tailed Grackles eat plant material year round, including grains such as corn, sorghum, and oats as well as fruits. In summer and early fall, animals make up half or more of their diet, with females eating up to 80% animal matter. Prey includes grasshoppers, beetles, spiders, bees, wasps, snails, worms, slugs, and moths. Grackles also feed on tadpoles, frogs, lizards, snakes, fish, and small mammals such as mice and shrews, as well as bird eggs and nestlings.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
1.1–1.5 in
2.7–3.7 cm
Egg Width
0.8–0.9 in
2.1–2.4 cm
Incubation Period
13–14 days
Nestling Period
20–23 days
Egg Description
Bright blue to pale bluish gray, marked with dark brown to black swirls and splotches.
Condition at Hatching
Blind and mostly naked, with pale, salmon-colored skin and long, sparse gray down.
Nest Description

Females weave a bulky cup of grasses, bark strips, weeds, rushes, and other plants, anchoring the rim to upright twigs or small branches. Weaving material can include plastic strips and bags, ribbons, flagging tape, feathers, and string. She lines the nest cup with mud or cow dung and adds a soft inner layer of fine grasses. Building the nest can take 5 to 17 days, with the male sometimes guarding the site from other females trying to pilfer nesting material. The finished nest is 4 to 13 inches deep and 7.5 inches across, with a cup measuring 2 to 4 inches deep and 4 inches wide.

Nest Placement

Tree

Females choose the nest site, picking a place as high as possible in a tree or shrub with several upright twigs for anchoring the nest, and water and foraging areas nearby. Nest heights may reach more than 60 feet off the ground. Where trees aren’t available, females choose sites in rushes, cattails, and other marsh vegetation, or on human-made structures such as duck blinds and telephone poles. She may abandon her initial nesting attempt in favor of a new site, or a new social mate.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Great-tailed Grackles are loud, social birds that can form flocks numbering in the tens of thousands. Each morning small groups disperse to feed in open fields and urban areas, often foraging with cowbirds and other blackbirds, then return to roosting sites at dusk. This evening routine includes a nonstop cacophony of whistles, squeals, and gunfire-like rattling as birds jostle for preferred positions. In early spring, males establish breeding territories in one or more trees, which they fiercely defend against other males. Territorial “ruff-out” displays of erected feathers, fanned tail, and bill held skyward may erupt into wrestling matches, with competing males locking talons and rolling on the ground. Dominant males mate with one or more “social mates” within their territory and may try and mate with other females, while females have a single social mate but may copulate with other males. Females brood and feed the chicks, which the male defends from intruders.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Great-tailed Grackles thrive in human-altered landscapes and have spread rapidly in areas of irrigated agriculture and urban development. This accounts for the increase in their population: between 1966 and 2010 there was almost a 3 percent per year increase in Great-tailed Grackle numbers, according to the the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 10 million with 53 percent in the U.S. and 36 percent in Mexico. They rate a 5 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. In the western U.S., their range has expanded more than any other native bird, and the bird is often treated as a pest for its habits of eating young corn and sorghum sprouts, feeding in grapefruit and other citrus groves, and raiding the nests of White-winged Doves. Grain and citrus growers shoot and haze birds or use chemical repellants. Despite these efforts, the Great-tailed Grackle population is increasing rapidly.

Credits

Range Map Help

Great-tailed Grackle Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Largely resident throughout North American range. Great-tailed Grackles at the northern edge of the range may move southward in winter, following river valleys.

Backyard Tips

Great-tailed Grackles will take seed spread beneath feeders, often chasing off smaller birds. Cracked corn and milo are particular favorites.

Find This Bird

Great-tailed Grackles can be found in open habitats with water nearby throughout the Midwest and West including farmland and city parks. Look for them in mixed flocks foraging on pastures and lawns—their long legs and massive tails distinguish them from other blackbirds and Common Grackles.