Great-tailed grackle

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Great-tailed grackle
Male, Honduras
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Icteridae
Genus: Quiscalus
Q. mexicanus
Binomial name
Quiscalus mexicanus
(JF Gmelin, 1788)
Range of Quiscalus mexicanus
Female, Guatemala

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 10 extant species of grackle and is closely related to the boat-tailed grackle and the extinct slender-billed grackle.[2] In the southern and southwestern United States, the grackle is sometimes referred to simply as a "blackbird" or (erroneously) a "crow"[3] due to its glossy black plumage; however, grackles form their own unique genus that is separate from other "blackbirds", such as the red-winged and Brewer's blackbirds, despite being in the same family (Icteridae). Superficially, Brewer's blackbird is one of the most visually similar species to grackles.

In some parts of México, the grackle is sometimes referred to in Spanish as cuervo ("raven"; "crow"), although it is not a member of the crow genus (Corvus) nor of their family (Corvidae).


The great-tailed grackle was formally described in 1788 by the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin in his revised and expanded edition of Carl Linnaeus's Systema Naturae. He placed it with the crows in the genus Corvus and coined the binomial name Corvus mexicanus.[4] The type locality has been restricted to the region of Veracruz in Mexico.[5] Gmelin's account was based on De Hocitzanatl that had been described by the Spanish naturalist Francisco Hernández de Toledo in his work Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus, seu, Plantarum animalium mineralium Mexicanorum historia. The work was published in 1651, long after Hernández's death in 1587. "Hocitzanatl" was the name for the bird in a local Mexican language.[6] The bird was also been mentioned in 1770 by the French author Antoine-Joseph Pernety in his work Histoire d'un voyage aux Isles Malouines.[7] The great-tailed grackle is now one of six species placed in the genus Quiscalus that was introduced by Louis Vieillot in 1816.[8]

Eight subspecies are recognised:[8]

  • Q. m. nelsoni (Ridgway, 1901) – southwest US and northwest Mexico
  • Q. m. graysoni Sclater, PL, 1884 – west Mexico
  • Q. m. obscurus Nelson, 1900 – southwest Mexico
  • Q. m. monsoni (Phillips, AR, 1950) – central west US to central north Mexico
  • Q. m. prosopidicola (Lowery, 1938) – central, central south US to northeast Mexico
  • Q. m. mexicanus (Gmelin, JF, 1788) – central Mexico to Nicaragua
  • Q. m. loweryi (Dickerman & Phillips, AR, 1966) – Yucatán Peninsula (southeast Mexico), Belize and nearby islands
  • Q. m. peruvianus Swainson, 1838 – Costa Rica to coastal north Peru and Venezuela


Great-tailed grackles are medium-sized birds (larger than starlings and smaller than crows; 38–46 cm (15–18 in) with males weighing 203–265 g (7.2–9.3 oz) and females 115–142 g (4.1–5.0 oz), and both sexes have long tails.[9] Wingspan ranges 18.9–22.8 in (48–58 cm).[10] 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.[9] 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).[9] Great-tailed grackles, particularly the adult males, have a keel-shaped tail that they can fold vertically by aligning the two halves.[11]

The great-tailed grackle and boat-tailed grackle were considered the same species until genetic analyses distinguished them as two separate species.[12]


Great-tailed grackles have an unusually large repertoire of vocalizations that are used year-round. The sounds range from "sweet, tinkling notes" to a "rusty gate hinge".[13] 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".[9] Because of their loud vocalizations, great-tailed grackles are considered a pest species by some.[14]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

Breeding display by male in 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.[15] In more recent times, great-tailed grackles expanded their breeding range by over 5,500% by moving north into North America between 1880 and 2000, following urban and agricultural corridors.[16][17] Their current range stretches from northwestern 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,[9] wetlands and mangroves,[16] and chaparral. The grackles' range has expanded with agricultural and urban settings.[18]

Behaviour and ecology[edit]


Bird with open mouth and ruffled feathers
A male great-tailed grackle, making its distinctive call

Great-tailed grackles 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 on to another colony.[19] 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.[19]

Great-tailed grackles can solve The Crow and the Pitcher puzzle - a problem involving a tube that is partially filled with water and a floating, out-of-reach piece of food.[20] 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.[20]


The great-tailed grackle mating season usually begins in early or mid-April. The nest is typically built near the top of a large or medium-sized tree, using materials such as woven grass and twigs, as well as some man-made materials. Females usually lay around 4 to 7 eggs. Incubation is usually around 14 to 13 days and their young usually leave the nest 12 to 17 days after hatching; the parents continue to feed their young several weeks after they have left the nest until they reach maturity.[21][22] Eggs are bright blue to pale bluish gray in color, marked with swirls and splotches that range from dark brown to black.[18]

Food and feeding[edit]

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).[11] 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.[11] They are also known to pick dead insects off the license plates of parked cars,[23] and kill barn swallows while flying.[24]

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.[16][citation needed]

In Colombia, the species is called the maria mulata,[25] and is the official bird of Cartagena, Colombia.[citation needed]The 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.[26]

In Austin, Texas, it is commonly found congregating near the city's numerous food trucks, and grocery store parking lots.[27] The great-tailed grackle has become an icon in the city, and especially on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, to the extent that local radio station KUT offers grackle-themed socks as a popular gift for its supporters.[28]


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2018). "Quiscalus mexicanus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2018: e.T22724308A132174807. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T22724308A132174807.en. Retrieved 12 November 2021.
  2. ^ Powell, A. F. L. A.; Barker, F. K.; Lanyon, S. M. (November 2008). "A complete species level phylogeny of the grackles (Quiscalus spp.), including the extinct slender-billed grackle, inferred from mitochondrial DNA" (PDF). The Condor. 110 (4): 718–728. doi:10.1525/cond.2008.8633. S2CID 85992549. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-12-24.
  3. ^ Lomax, J.N. (2015-02-19). "Eight Reasons Grackles are Awesome". Texas Monthly. Archived from the original on 2022-08-10. Retrieved February 19, 2015.*
  4. ^ Gmelin, Johann Friedrich (1788). Systema naturae per regna tria naturae : secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis (in Latin). Vol. 1, Part 1 (13th ed.). Lipsiae [Leipzig]: Georg. Emanuel. Beer. p. 375.
  5. ^ Paynter, Raymond A. Jr, ed. (1968). Check-List of Birds of the World. Vol. 14. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Museum of Comparative Zoology. p. 189.
  6. ^ Hernández, Francisco (1651). Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus, seu, Plantarum animalium mineralium Mexicanorum historia (in Latin). Romae: Typographeio Vitalis Mascardi. p. 21.
  7. ^ Pernety, Antoine-Joseph (1770). Histoire d'un voyage aux Isles Malouines, fait en 1763 & 1764 (in French). Vol. 1. Paris: Chez Saillant & Nyon. p. 185.
  8. ^ a b Gill, Frank; Donsker, David; Rasmussen, Pamela, eds. (July 2023). "Oropendolas, orioles, blackbirds". IOC World Bird List Version 13.2. International Ornithologists' Union. Retrieved 21 November 2023.
  9. ^ a b c d e Johnson & Peer (2001). The Birds of North America Online. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  10. ^ "Great-tailed Grackle Identification, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology". Retrieved 2020-09-30.
  11. ^ a b c Skutch, A.F. (1954). "Boat-tailed grackle" (PDF). In Miller, A.H.; Pitelka, F.A. (eds.). Life Histories of Central American Birds. Pacific Coast Avifauna, Number 31. Berkeley, California: Cooper Ornithological Society. pp. 321–334.
  12. ^ DaCosta, J.M.; Wehtje, W.; Klicka, J. (February 2008). "Historic genetic structuring and paraphyly within the Great-tailed Grackle". The Condor. 110 (1): 170–177. doi:10.1525/cond.2008.110.1.170. S2CID 84540142.
  13. ^ "Great-tailed Grackle Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology". Retrieved 2020-07-22.
  14. ^ "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.
  15. ^ Haemig, P.D. (March 1978). "Aztec Emperor Auitzotl and the Great-Tailed Grackle". Biotropica. 10 (1): 11–17. doi:10.2307/2388099. JSTOR 2388099.
  16. ^ 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 (10): 1593–1607. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2699.2003.00970.x. S2CID 84625044.
  17. ^ Peer, B.D. (2011). "Invasion of the Emperor's grackle". Ardeola. 58 (2): 405–409. doi:10.13157/arla.58.2.2011.405. S2CID 85068265.
  18. ^ a b "Great-tailed Grackle Life History, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology". Retrieved 2020-07-22.
  19. ^ a b Johnson, K.; DuVal, E.; Kielt, M.; Hughes, C. (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.
  20. ^ a b Logan, C.J. (2016). "Behavioral flexibility and problem-solving in an invasive bird". PeerJ. 4: 1975. doi:10.7717/peerj.1975. PMC 4860340. PMID 27168984.
  21. ^ Koby, Patrick. "Quiscalus mexicanus (great-tailed grackle)". Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved 2020-05-31.
  22. ^ "BioKIDS - Kids' Inquiry of Diverse Species, Quiscalus quiscula, common grackle: INFORMATION". Retrieved 2020-05-31.
  23. ^ Grabrucker, S.; Grabrucker, A.M. (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.
  24. ^ Clapp, R.B. (1986). "Great-tailed grackle kills barn swallow in flight" (PDF). Wilson Bulletin. 98 (4): 614–615. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2023-03-29.
  25. ^ "Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) (Gmelin, JF, 1788)". Avibase: The World data bird base. Retrieved 23 May 2013.
  26. ^ "Cartagena La Heróica: María Mulata" (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 16 June 2016. Retrieved 8 November 2015.
  27. ^ Weise, E. (2013-01-06). "Troublesome great-tailed grackle spreads north, west". USA Today. Archived from the original on 2023-02-10. Retrieved 2023-03-29.
  28. ^ "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]