by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist
1. Size and Shape – Large, lanky songbirds with rounded crowns, long legs and long pointed bills. Males have long tails that are nearly half their body length, typically held in a folded V-shape, like the keel of a boat
2. Color Pattern – Males are glossy black all over and females are dark brown above and russet below. Eye color ranges from dull brown along the Western Gulf Coast to bright yellow along the Atlantic coast.
3. Behavior – They are omnivores, feeding on everything from seeds and food scraps ( also your beach snacks! ) to crustaceans from along the shoreline.
4. Habitat – Coastal species through most of their range, however live all across the state of Florida, often well away from the coast.
There’s a pretty good chance that you’ve seen, and probably even heard, a Boat-tailed Grackle if you’ve been on the island recently. It might have been on one of those “socially distancing” bike rides or walks or maybe even out on the beach. This common, widespread and adaptable bird can be found in our wetlands and shorelines all along the islands and actually all along coastal US states from Texas around Florida and up to Virginia.
Boat-tailed Grackles are omnivorous with a diet that consists of aquatic insects, snails, crayfish, crabs, mussels, shrimp, frogs and fish. When grabbing a meal from the water, they feed on grasshoppers, caterpillars, eggs of all sorts, seeds and grain.
They nest in colonies, often near water in emergent vegetation like cattails, sawgrass, bulrush or even trees that grow along the marsh or swamp edge. They are well known for their courtship and territorial displays. The male perches in an open, visible area, fluffs our feathers and spreads his tail while fluttering his wings and making sharp, harsh calls. Undoubtedly, wooing the ladies in the colony! With several makes inhabiting each colony, the amount of activity while these displays are being carried out is quite impressive and makes for a very active photo session.
The male Boat-tailed Grackle is solid black with iridescent feathers that often reflect a blue or even green color. The female however is much less conspicuous, being cinnamon colored and about half the size of the male. To a casual observer, the female would appear to be a different species.
Boat-tailed Grackles are year-round residents of the island but they are best to see in spring and early summer when you can see them congregated in their busy nesting colonies. On island, the newly created Jordan Marsh Water Quality Treatment Park would be a great place to see them as it boasts the perfect habitat for it. A trail walk around the park would provide some great opportunities to view both males and females and maybe even a nest with chicks if you’re lucky! Bring a good pair of binoculars and a scope with you. Good equipment always makes the birding more rewarding and enjoyable. Good luck!
Kyle, thanks for your beautiful photos and your interesting info about the birds. I think a local Sanibel bird book is in the making! You’re not only a great photographer, you also an excellent writer! Helen Ketteman
Hi, wonderful article! I live in Crystal River, and absolutely love our grackles! They are so friendly and tame and eat from your hand. Just a quick note that females are not half a size of the males, just a little bit smaller. When I first moved to Florida I didn’t know boat-tailed grackles were sexually dimorphic and thought the females were juveniles, lol.