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.

Source: Australian Department of Agriculture and Food



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.


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, I don't way something I'll regret. :(


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!

Mr "T" from Indiana said...

As long as it's not the state bird where you live, ya you can shoot it. No law against it that I know of. Anonymous must be one of those that's against or second amendment. Not me, I'll die B4 they get my guns!!!

Mr "T" from Indiana said...

I don't know where U people get your information but it's not illegal to shoot these birds. Unless it's your state bird. U must be against the second amendment also. Plus you people must not of studied birds in highschool biology class.

Anonymous said...

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Common Grackles are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. That means that it is illegal to shoot them. The list is posted at

Anonymous said...

Wow,Mr. T couldn't be more wrong. The migratory bird act of 1918 prohibits the killing of all native non-game birds.The house sparrow and common startling are both examples of non native bird that may be killed and should be with a vengeance.They are both nest robbers that will kill native nesters and destroy their eggs and young.

Anonymous said...

And you, sir, obviously did not study grammar.

Anonymous said...

I don't know where "Mr. T" gets his information, but it's wrong. It is illegal to shoot federally protected songbirds, including the grackle.

Here is a list of federally protected songbirds:

Here is where it says it's unlawful to kill them:

Careful where you get your information! :)

Melle Ferre said...

Mr T and others: it is against federal law to kill these non-game birds with few exceptions and the law has some teeth to it. Not getting caught doesn't make it legal. Here's a helpful link.

Sarah Timmins said...

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal to kill or remove hundreds of species of birds, including the red-winged blackbird.

slvonglahn said...

All migratory birds except those defined as 'game birds' are protected and have been for quite some time.

Just because a person is against shooting migratory birds does not make them against the second amendment. It makes them a bird lover and a law abiding citizen besides. Mr T, why so hostile? Your grammar is not correct, btw. You must not HAVE studied grammar in high school. : ) See, not so nice.