Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque. A lifelong birder and author of For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to your Backyard.
The Great-tailed Grackle is a common, year round resident found throughout the southwest including New Mexico. The male is 18” long with a wingspan of 23”, has iridescent black feathers, a long V-shaped tail and striking yellow eyes. The female is a bit smaller at 15” in length with a 19” wingspan, dark brown feathers and dark eyes. The Great-tailed Grackle differs from the smaller, Common Grackle which is found in the eastern and mid-western US.
This large grackle prefers open habitat near a water source and can be found in urban and rural settings up to 7500’ in elevation. In winter they forage with other blackbirds mainly feeding on grains and fruits. In summer over 50% of the male and over 80% of the females diet consists of animal matter such as grasshoppers, snakes, spiders, and mice. This provides the added protein needed during nesting season to raise healthy young. Great-tailed Grackles are not commonly seen at backyard birdfeeders unless you feed cracked corn or other grains. They can be attracted to bird baths.
During the summer nesting season the female chooses the nest site. The nest is usually at the top of a tree or shrub up to 60’ high. The female incubates the eggs and after hatching, feeds the young. The male guards the nesting territory from predators and other female Great-tailed Grackles that may try to steal nesting materials. The male Great-tailed Grackle puts on quite a show when defending its nesting territory from other male grackles. When threatened, the male displays erected feathers and a fanned tail while pointing its stout bill skyward. This display is called a “ruff-out”. Competing males will sometimes lock talons and roll on the ground.
Great-tailed Grackles are loud, social birds. They can form large flocks especially in winter. After foraging for food during the day, the flock looks for large deciduous or coniferous trees to roost in at night. Evening roosting begins at dusk with loud whistles, squeaks, and rattling calls as the birds settle in for the night.
The Great-tailed Grackle has adapted well to human development. I first noticed these birds when I heard their loud whistles while sitting at a busy intersection in Albuquerque. Their population is on the rise. In the western US the Great-tailed Grackles population has expanded more than any other native bird.