Thursday, June 26, 2008

Difference Between Grackles and Starlings

I saw a sad sight today during my lunchtime jog—a dead grackle. Or was it a starling? I'll get to that in a minute.

I was making my way down to the trail along the Charles River when I saw what I thought was an injured bird in the middle of the road. It was just sitting there and I figured it was just stunned or maybe had an injured wing. The bird probably didn't have much of a chance, but the least I could move it out of the road. As I got closer to the bird I saw it had its mouth open and then I realized the gruesome truth—it was dead and was frozen in that position. I just got shivers thinking about it. The poor thing.
Anyway, so it got me to thinking 'What is the difference between grackles and starlings?' I use the two interchangeably and haven't really made an effort to sort it out. Until now.
I like to use All About Birds from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as an online resource. The site is comprehensive and easy to use. (I also really like the 'Cool Facts' feature.) Here's what I found out:
The main difference is that the Starling has a short tail and yellow bill, while the Grackle has a black bill and a long 'keel-shaped' tail.
Starling

Source: Australian Department of Agriculture and Food

http://www.agric.wa.gov.au/

Grackle

Source: Audubon.org

http://www.audubon.org/news/pressroom/cbid/BirdList.html



Some interesting facts about the Starling (from All About Birds):
  • All of the birds you see in the U.S. are descendants of 100 birds originally released in Central Park in the 1890s.
  • Females and males are very difficult to tell apart- one seemingly helpful trick is the eye ring since females have a distinctive yellow eye ring; however, some males 4 years old and older can develop it and older females can lose it.
  • If a female does not get a mate early enough in the season she might lay an egg in another female's better-made nest to help her offspring's chance of success.

Some interesting facts about the Grackle:

  • They will follow plows through fields to pick up bugs and mice.
  • They will wade into water to catch small fish.
  • They will even kill and eat other birds at bird feeders. (Crazy!)
  • Engages in 'anting'- a symbiotic relationship with ants that secrete an acid that helps prevent parasites

So after doing my research I've determined it was a Starling. I've always had the two mixed up! The Starling's mottled plumage seems more 'grackle-y' to me.

Strangely enough when drove down the road later that day the bird was gone.

7 comments:

jeanie schlump said...

So if it looks like a starling (female?) but has a black bill it is a grackle? I am trying to figure this out myself and had about 50 show up when I tossed some chicken bones out my back door.

BirdingGirl said...

Hi Jeanie- I want to say it's a Grackle if it has a black bill. Grackles are shiny and purply/blueish.

I had a flock pass through my yard recently too. It can be a little scary sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Both the grackles and starlings are pests and food robbers at the feeders. The grackles attack many of the songbirds we try to attract. Almost as big a nuisance as the red wing blackbirds in our area(flying locusts that decimate the sunflower crop) We shoot as many of all three as possible.

Anonymous said...

SHOOT??!!!!! I'll remain speechless..so, I don't way something I'll regret. :(

ALL BIRD LOVER

Anonymous said...

It is illegal to shoot grackles.

Starlings have yellow bills only in breeding plumage. Their speckles are part of their non-breeding plumage; the speckles are actually light tips on the dark feathers; these tips mostly wear off during the winter months, so that in spring the starling is mostly blackish with a greenish sheen and a few very small speckles. Juveniles are grey-brown.

There are several varieties of grackle; the one you pictured is a Common Grackle. (Used to be called Purple Grackle.) In all grackles, makes are iridescent black and females are brown-grey or some variant thereof.

Grackles are native songbirds and are thus protected. Starlings are an introduced species and have become pests; in particular, they have displaced native bluebirds from nest cavities.

Anonymous said...

Thanks BirdingGirl and also thanks to the "June 30th Anonymous" comment poster. Really great, interesting information.

Here's how I remember the identification of these guys...

I think "BLACK" = "GRACKle"
(because the Grackles have black feet and bills)

And when I think of STARlings, I think of the yellow-hued STARS I used to draw as a kid (...and Starlings have yellow legs and sometimes bills).

Starling man Sam said...

Actually, Starlings have orangeish legs, and remember that the bill turns brown in winter. The easiest way to tell the difference is by the tails: Grackles have long elaborate ones, and Starlings have little stubs!