Great-tailed grackle

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Great-tailed grackle
Quiscalus mexicanusMPCCA20061226-0567B.jpg
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Icteridae
Genus: Quiscalus
Q. mexicanus
Binomial name
Quiscalus mexicanus
(JF Gmelin, 1788)
Quiscalus mexicanus.svg
Range of Quiscalus mexicanus

The great-tailed grackle or Mexican grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) is a medium-sized, highly social passerine bird native to North and South America. A member of the family Icteridae, it is one of ten extant species of grackle and is closely related to the boat-tailed grackle and the slender-billed grackle.[2] It is sometimes erroneously referred to as a "blackbird" in the southern United States,[3] although blackbirds belong to other genera such as Euphagus. Similarly, it is often called cuervo ("crow") in areas of Mexico owing to its glossy black plumage, although it is not a member of the genus Corvus, nor even of the family Corvidae.



Great-tailed grackles are medium-sized birds (larger than starlings and smaller than crows; 38 cm (15 in)-46 cm (18 in)) with males weighing 203 g (7.2 oz)-265 g (9.3 oz) and females between 115 g (4.1 oz)-142 g (5.0 oz), and both sexes have long tails.[4] Males are iridescent black with a purple-blue sheen on the feathers of the head and upper body, while females are brown with darker wings and tail.[4] Adults of both sexes have bright yellow eyes, while juveniles of both sexes have brown eyes and brown plumage like females (except for streaks on the breast).[4] Great-tailed grackles, particularly the adult males, have a keel-shaped tail that they can fold vertically by aligning the two halves.[5]

The great-tailed grackle and boat-tailed grackle were considered the same species until genetic analyses distinguished them as two separate species.[6]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

Breeding display by male, CATIE, Turrialba, Costa Rica

Great-tailed grackles originated from the tropical lowlands of Central and South America, but historical evidence from Bernardino de Sahagún shows that the Aztecs, during the time of the emperor Ahuitzotl, introduced the great-tailed grackle from their homeland in the Mexican Gulf Coast to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in the highland Valley of Mexico, most likely to use their iridescent feathers for decoration.[7] In more recent times, great-tailed grackles expanded their breeding range by over 5500% by moving north into North America between 1880 and 2000, following urban and agricultural corridors.[8][9] Their current range stretches from northwest Venezuela and western Colombia and Ecuador in the south to Minnesota in the north, to Oregon, Idaho, and California in the west, to Florida in the east, with vagrants occurring as far north as southern Canada. Their habitat for foraging is on the ground in clear areas such as pastures,[4] wetlands and mangroves.[8]


Great-tailed grackles are noted for their diverse foraging habits. They extract larvae and insects from grassy areas; eat lizards, nestlings, and eggs; forage in freshly plowed land; remove parasites from cattle; and eat fruits (e.g., bananas, berries) and grains (e.g., maize, corn on the cob by opening the husks).[5] They turn over objects to search for food underneath, including crustaceans, insects, and worms, they hunt tadpoles and fish by wading into shallow water, and although they do not swim, they catch fish by flying close to the water's surface, and are even reported to dive a few inches into the water to retrieve a fish.[5] They are also known to pick dead insects off the license plates of parked cars,[10] and kill barn swallows while flying.[11]


Great-tailed grackles have an unusually large repertoire of vocalizations that are used year-round. Males use a wider variety of vocalization types, while females engage mostly in "chatter", however there is a report of a female performing the "territorial song".[4] Because of their loud vocalizations, great-tailed grackles are considered a pest species by some.[12]

A male Great-Tailed Grackle, making its distinctive call

They communally roost in trees or the reeds of wetlands at night and, during the breeding season, they nest in territories using three different mating strategies: 1) territorial males defend their territory on which many females place their nests and raise young, 2) residential males live in the larger colony but do not defend a territory or have mates, and 3) transient males stay for a few days before leaving the colony to likely move onto another colony.[13] Resident and transient males sire a small number of offspring through extra pair copulations with females on territories. Territorial males are heavier and have longer tails than non-territorial males, and both of these characteristics are associated with having more offspring.[13]

Grackles can solve Aesop's Fable tests - a problem involving a tube that is partially filled with water and a floating out of reach piece of food.[14] The problem is solved by dropping objects into the water to raise the level and bring the food within reach. They are also behaviorally flexible, changing their preferences quickly in response to changes in cognitive tasks.[14]

In culture[edit]

In Mexico, where it is known as the chanate or zanate, there is a legend that it has seven songs. "In the creation, the Zanate having no voice, stole its seven distinct songs from the wise and knowing sea turtle. You can now hear the Zanate's vocals as the Seven Passions (Love, Hate, Fear, Courage, Joy, Sadness, and Anger) of life." Mexican artisans have created icons in clay, sometimes as whistles that portray the sea turtle with the zanate perched on its back.[8][citation needed]

Statue of maria mulata in Cartagena

In Colombia, the species is called Maria mulata,[15] and is the official bird of Cartagena de Indias[citation needed]. Cartagena artist, Enrique Grau, had an affinity for these birds and, because of this inspiration, many Colombian monuments and artistic works were created in honor of the bird's intelligence, adaptability, cheerfulness, sociability, collaborative tendencies, diligence, craftiness, and ability to take advantage of adversity.[16]

In Austin, Texas, it is commonly found congregating near the city's numerous food trucks.[17] The great tailed grackle has become an icon in the city, and especially on the campus of University of Texas at Austin, to the extent that local radio station KUT offers grackle-themed socks as a popular gift for its supporters.[18]


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Quiscalus mexicanus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN. 2012. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
  2. ^ "Powell, A.F.L.A., F.K. Barker and S.M. Lanyon. 2008. A complete species-level phylogeny of the grackles (Quiscalus spp.), including the extinct Slender-billed Grackle, inferred from mitochondrial DNA. Condor 110:718-728" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-12-24. Retrieved 2012-07-12.
  3. ^ "Eight Reasons Grackles are Awesome". Texas Monthly. Retrieved February 19, 2015.*
  4. ^ a b c d e Johnson & Peer (2001). The Birds of North America Online. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  5. ^ a b c Skutch, AF (1954). Life histories of Central American birds. Berkeley, CA: Cooper Ornithological Society.
  6. ^ DaCosta; et al. (2008). "Historic genetic structuring and paraphyly within the Great-tailed Grackle". Condor. 110 (1): 170–177. doi:10.1525/cond.2008.110.1.170.
  7. ^ Haemig, Paul D. (Mar 1978). "Aztec Emperor Auitzotl and the Great-Tailed Grackle". Biotropica. 10 (1): 11–17. doi:10.2307/2388099. JSTOR 2388099.
  8. ^ a b c Wehtje, W (2003). "The range expansion of the great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus Gmelin) in North America since 1880". Journal of Biogeography. 30: 1593–1607. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2699.2003.00970.x.
  9. ^ Peer, BD (2011). "Invasion of the Emperor's grackle". Ardeola. 58 (2): 405–409. doi:10.13157/arla.58.2.2011.405.
  10. ^ Grabrucker & Grabrucker (2010). "Rare Feeding Behavior of Great-Tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) in the Extreme Habitat of Death Valley". The Open Journal of Ornithology. 3: 101–104. doi:10.2174/1874453201003010101.
  11. ^ Clapp, RB (1986). "Great-tailed grackle kills barn swallow in flight". Wilson Bulletin. 98 (4): 614–615.
  12. ^ "UT's war on grackles" (PDF). The Daily Texan. Retrieved January 6, 2013.[permanent dead link]* Hermes JJ (2005). UT's war on grackles. Daily Texan. section. 8A.
  13. ^ a b Johnson; et al. (2000). "Male mating strategies and the mating system of great-tailed grackles". Behavioral Ecology. 11 (2): 132–141. doi:10.1093/beheco/11.2.132.
  14. ^ a b Logan, CJ (2016). "Behavioral flexibility and problem solving in an invasive bird". PeerJ. 4: 1975. doi:10.7717/peerj.1975. PMC 4860340. PMID 27168984.
  15. ^ "Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) (Gmelin, JF, 1788)". Avibase: The World data bird base. Retrieved 23 May 2013.
  16. ^ "Cartagena La Heróica: María Mulata". Archived from the original on 16 June 2016. Retrieved 8 November 2015.
  17. ^ "Troublesome great-tailed grackle spreads north, west". Retrieved 14 August 2016.
  18. ^ "Spring 2018 Thank You Gifts". Retrieved 17 September 2019.

Further reading[edit]

  • Johnson, K., and B. D. Peer. 2001. Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus). In The Birds of North America, No. 576 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

External links[edit]