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Jackson County welcomes the grackle

There's a new kid in town. This one is a large blackbird with an outrageous tail, appropriately named the great-tailed grackle.

The "great-tailed" part I get, but I have no clue where the name "grackle" came from. Female grackles are browner and smaller than the male, with a tail better matched to the size of the bird. If you have been to Texas or Arizona, I'm sure you have seen them. They are abundant, to the point of being pests, sort of like starlings.

I'm sure you have all seen its smaller cousin, the Brewer's blackbird. It's the familiar blackbird with the yellow eye that patrols parking lots, especially around fast-food outlets, looking for fallen french fries and other delicacies.

Well, grackles are now here in Jackson County, not many, but the area around White City is home to a small population. No one has found a nest or young, but it's only a matter of time.

A little over 100 years ago it wasn't easy to find them in the United States. They first showed up in southern Texas around 1900, expanding their range north from Mexico. Not long after that they crossed the border into Arizona, and they haven't looked back, spreading throughout the southwest. The first was seen in Oregon in 1980 in Harney County. The first in Jackson County was in 2003. In the last year, numbers have increased from the isolated individual to a half dozen or so.

It's not unusual for introduced birds to go through explosive range expansion. Witness the house sparrow, European starling and most recently the Eurasian collared dove. All they needed was a little help crossing the Atlantic, and off they went coast to coast. Manifest destiny, avian style.

It's far more unusual for a native bird that has maintained a stable range for hundreds of years to suddenly take off. The Anna's hummingbird is one, but the expansion is understandable. They simply followed the hummingbird feeders that people offered.

Red-shouldered hawks, acorn woodpeckers and black phoebes have all increased greatly in abundance and spread north over the last several decades. The reasons behind their expansions are unclear. It is tempting to invoke climate change, but it's difficult to be sure. Still, there is little to suggest an alternative explanation.

For the red-shouldered hawk, there have always been woodlands. There have been oak savannas in the Willamette Valley waiting for acorn woodpeckers since long before Lewis and Clark. And, streams with riparian vegetation suitable for black phoebes have long been shading trout streams up and down the coast.

It apparently is the time for the great-tailed grackle, and their range expansion has been spectacular. Great-tailed grackles thrive in agricultural lands, and habitat change may offer a partial explanation.

Given that great-tailed grackles tend to be non-migratory, their northward expansion may be slowing. Winters this far north might be a bit chilly for them. That would be all right with me. Small numbers of these stunning birds are a great addition to the region. Hoards, like flocks of giant starlings, would be less welcome. For now, I am pleased with the new arrival.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

Great-tailed grackle - courtesy flickr.com