Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Conversation with a Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

I spend a lot of time in conversation with birds. Not that I have a clue what they’re saying to me, if indeed they’re actually vocalizing to me, and I’m sure that what I think I’m saying when I imitate a chickadee’s song or an owl’s hoot is not at all what they’re hearing, but I find it irresistible sometimes, especially when I’m walking alone in the woods, to call back when I hear an easy-to-imitate bird call.

Black-capped Chickadee

Communication involves at least some actual understanding between individuals. Back when I had my old desk beside my window, I’d crank open the window and whistle, and instantly chickadees would fly in and I’d feed them mealworms. I have no idea how they translated that whistle, but they definitely knew that if they flew in right then, I’d give them tasty meals. If I was busy at my desk when a chickadee wanted a mealworm, it could alight on my window and tap to catch my eye.

Black-capped Chickadee peeking in my window waiting for mealworms

I don’t know if it tapped out of impatience, eagerness, or simple hunger, and obviously have no way of knowing if any chickadees ever did that when I wasn’t right at my desk, but when a chickadee did it, it always looked straight at my face, and it never flew away when I got up and opened the window.

 Handfeeding mealworms to a Black-capped Chickadee

We definitely had an understanding between us—chickadees knew I’d feed them whether I whistled first, or whether they caught my attention by tapping. This is the very essence of communication.

Great-tailed Grackle

One of my Facebook friends, Jack Shelton of Bemidji, wrote to me last week about his own experience communicating with a bird down in Central America. He wrote:
I was visiting the beach a couple days ago in Nicaragua, and listening to what I think was a Great-tailed Grackle. What a beautiful and diverse repertoire. We talked back and forth for a considerable time, him having way more sounds than I could mimic. Eventually I endeared myself to him by offering a piece of fish skin & bones which he seemed to enjoy. To think we didn’t converse seems silly. I think we both took something from our time together.
I so wish that more people understood just how much our lives are enriched by wild animals. They fill the world with beauty, both visual and auditory. And for those of us lucky enough to notice, once in a while a bird gives us a moment of grace, something money just can’t buy, though as Jack learned, sometimes we do have to pay a small price, maybe in the form of some fish skin and bones.

Great-tailed Grackle

My first baby, Joey, had a long conversation with a whole flock of Great-tailed Grackles when he was six-months old. It made the Great-tailed Grackle my Best Bird Ever!! Read all about it here.