Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
PURPLE GRAKLE, OR COMMON CROW-BLACKBIRD.
QUISCALUS VERSICOLOR, Vieill.
PLATE CCXXI.--MALE AND FEMALE.
I could not think of any better mode of representing these birds than that
which I have adopted, as it exhibits them in the exercise of their nefarious
propensities. Look at them: The male, as if full of delight at the sight of
the havoc which he has already committed on the tender, juicy, unripe corn on
which he stands, has swelled his throat, and is calling in exultation to his
companions to come and assist him in demolishing it. The female has fed
herself, and is about to fly off with a well-loaded bill to her hungry and
expectant brood, that, from the nest, look on their plundering parents, joyously
anticipating the pleasures of which they shall ere long be allowed to
participate. See how torn the husk is from the ear, and how nearly devoured the
grains of corn already are! This is the tithe our Blackbirds take from our
planters and farmers; but it was so appointed, and such is the will of the
These birds are constant residents in Louisiana. I say they are so,
because numbers of them, which in some countries would be called immense, are
found there at all seasons of the year. No sooner has the cotton or corn
planter begun to turn his land into brown furrows, than the Crow-Blackbirds are
seen sailing down from the skirts of the woods, alighting in the fields, and
following his track along the ridges of newly-turned earth, with an elegant and
elevated step, which shews them to be as fearless and free as the air through
which they wing their way. The genial rays of the sun shine on their silky
plumage, and offer to the ploughman's eye such rich and varying tints, that no
painter, however gifted, could ever imitate them. The coppery bronze, which in
one light shews its rich gloss, is, by the least motion of the bird, changed in
a moment to brilliant and deep azure, and again, in the next light, becomes
refulgent sapphire or emerald-green.
The bird stops, spreads its tail, lowers its wings, and, with swelled
throat and open bill, sounds a call to those which may chance to be passing
near. The stately step is resumed. Its keen eye, busily engaged on either
side, is immediately attracted by a grub, hastening to hide itself from the
sudden exposure made by the plough. In vain does it hurry, for the Grakle has
seen and marked it for its own, and it is snatched up and swallowed in a moment.
Thus does the Grakle follow the husbandman as he turns one furrow after
another, destroying a far worse enemy to the corn than itself, for every worm
which it devours would else shortly cut the slender blade, and thereby destroy
the plant when it would perhaps be too late to renew it by fresh seed. Every
reflecting farmer knows this well, and refrains from disturbing the Grakle at
this season. Were he as merciful at another time, it would prove his grateful
recollection of the services thus rendered him. But man is too often forgetful
of the benefit which he has received; he permits his too commonly weak and
selfish feelings to prevail over his reason; and no sooner does the corn become
fit for his own use, than he vows and executes vengeance on all intruders. But
to return to our Blackbird.
The season of love has arrived. Each male having, by assiduity, valour, or
good fortune, received the affectionate regards of a faithful mate, unites with
her in seeking a safe and agreeable retreat. The lofty dead trees left
standing in our newly cultivated fields, have many holes and cavities, some of
which have been bored by Woodpeckers, and others caused by insects or decay.
These are visited and examined in succession, until a choice being made, and a
few dry weeds and feathers collected, the female deposits her eggs, which are
from four to six in number, of a bluish tint, blotched and streaked with brown
and black. She sits upon them while her valiant mate and guardian mounts to the
summit of a broken branch, pours forth his rude notes, and cheers and watches
her with the kindest and most unremitting care. I think I see him plunging
through the air and overtaking the Red-headed or the Golden-winged Woodpecker,
which, in search of their last year's nest, have imprudently alighted at the
entrance of the already chosen and occupied hole. The conflict is but
momentary; the creeping bird is forced to yield, and after whirling round in the
air as it defends itself, and very nearly comes to the ground, makes the best of
its way off, well knowing that there its opponent is more formidable than even
in the air.
This over, the Grakle roams in quest of food. Little heaps of grubs, with
a few grains of corn, afford delicious repasts to himself and his mate. They
thus share the labours of incubation, and see the time pass in eager and
pleasant expectation. And now the emerging brood shake off the shell that so
long enclosed them; their tottering heads are already raised toward their
mother, while she, with intense anxiety, dries and cherishes them. They grow up
day after day. The hole becomes nearly filled with their increased bulk. The
vigilance and industry of the parents also augment apace. I wish, good-natured
reader, you would seek out such a sight: it would gladden your heart, for the
rearing of such a family is worthy of your contemplation.
It is with regret that I must turn from this picture. I have already told
you that the Grakles are at least as fond of corn as the lords of the land are.
Hark to the sound of rattles, and the hallooing of the farmer's sons and
servants, as they spread over the field! Now and then the report of a gun comes
on the ear. The Grakles have scarcely a single moment of quiet; they are
chased, stolen upon, and killed in great numbers, all the country round; but the
hungry birds heed not the slaughter of their brethren. They fly in flocks from
place to place, and, in spite of all that the farmer has done or threatens to
do, continue their depreciations. Food must be had. Grubs and worms have
already retired to their winter quarters within the earth; no beech-nuts or
acorns have yet fallen from the trees; corn is now their only resource, and the
quantity of it which they devour is immense.
Now gloomy November brings up its cold blasts from the north, and drives
before it the Grakles from the Eastern States. They reach Louisiana and all the
Southern States when autumn has not yet retired, when the weather is still mild
and serene, and the yellow foliage of the wide woods gives shelter to myriads of
birds. The Grakles, congregated in prodigious flocks, alight on the trees that
border the vast forests, covering every twig and bough in such astonishing
masses, that the most unskilful or most avaricious gunner finds no difficulty in
satisfying his wish for sport or game. This is the time to listen to their
choruses. They seem to congratulate each other on their escape, and vociferate
at such a rate as to make one imagine their number double what it is.
Beech-nuts and acorns are now abundant in the woods, having by this time
fallen from the trees, and the Grakles roam in quest of them in immense bodies,
rising on wing when disturbed, uttering at the same time a tremendous noise,
then making a few rounds, and alighting again. They thus gradually clear away
the mast, in the same manner as the wild pigeons are wont to do. As the weather
becomes colder, they frequent the farms, and even resort to the cattle pens,
where, from among the litter and refuse straw, they pick the scattered grains
that have fallen from the stores with which the farmer has supplied his stock.
They remain about the farms until the commencement of spring. They are easily
caught in traps, and shew little fear when seized, biting so severely as often
to draw blood, and laying hold with their claws in a very energetic manner.
During the winter of 1821, I caught a number of them, as well as many other
birds, for the purpose of sending them alive to Europe. The whole of my
captives were confined together in a large cage, where they were well fed and
watered, and received all necessary attention. Things went on favourably for
several days, and I with pleasure saw them becoming daily more gentle. An
unexpected change, however, soon took place, for as the Grakles became
reconciled to confinement, they began to attack the other birds, beating and
killing one after another so fast that I was obliged to remove them from the
cage. Even this did not prevent further breach of the peace, for the strong
attacked and killed the weak of their own race, so that only a few remained in
the end. The Grakles thus mangled, killed and partially devoured several
Cardinal Grosbeaks, Doves, Pigeons, and Blue Jays. I look upon this remarkable
instance of ferocity in the Grakle with the more amazement, as I never observed
it killing any bird when in a state of freedom.
What I have said respecting the Purple Grakle (which by some is improperly
named the Boat-tailed Grakle) refers particularly to the habits of those in the
south, where some of them are found at all seasons. I shall now speak of those
of the Western and Middle States. Most of these birds leave the south about the
middle of February, setting out in small detached flocks. They reach the State
of New York in this straggling manner about the middle of May. Their migratory
flight is performed in short undulating lines, resembling small segments of very
large circles. It may be explained in this manner. Supposing the bird poised
in the air and intent on moving forwards, it propels itself by a strenuous flap
of the wings, which carries it forward in a curve, along which it ascends until
it attains the level of its original point of departure, when it flaps its wings
again, and performs another curve. In this form of flight they pursue their
long journey, during which they keep up a continual low chattering, as if they
were discussing some important question. When they reach Pennsylvania, they
commence the avocations which I have already described, and are seen following
the plough, while their kindred that have been left in Louisiana are probably by
this time feeding their young, as the difference of climate between these
latitudes leaves the northern states a month later in their seasons than the
In the Northern States these birds construct their nests in a much more
perfect, and therefore more natural manner. A pine tree, whenever it occurs in
a convenient place, is selected by preference, its dense foliage and horizontal
branches being well adapted for nidification. There the Grakle forms a nest,
which from the ground might easily be mistaken for that of our Robin, the Turdus
migratorius, were it less bulky. But it is much larger, and instead of being
placed by itself, is associated with others, often to the number of a dozen or
more, on the horizontal arms of the pine, forming tier above tier, from the
lowest to the highest branches. The centre of the nest is what I would call
saddled on the bough, the materials being laid so that the nest is thinner in
its middle part and thicker at the two opposite sides, so as to have a firm
hold. It is about six inches in diameter outside, and four inches within, the
depth being the same, and is composed of grass, slender roots and mud, lined
with hair and finer grasses. I had a white pine-tree in one of my fields on
Mill Grove Farm, on which many of these birds bred every spring, when some
mischievous lads frequently amused themselves with beating down the nests with
long fishing-rods, to my great annoyance. Some of the Pennsylvania farmers,
from a very laudable motive, have given out that Grakles are fond of pulling up
the garlic plant, so injurious to the pastures of the Middle States; but I am
sorry to say this assertion is by no means correct, and were these good people
to look to the Grakles for the clearing of their fields from that evil, they
might wait long enough.
The flesh of the Purple Grakle is little better than that of the Crow,
being dry and ill-flavoured, notwithstanding which it is frequently used, with
the addition of one or two Golden-winged Woodpeckers or Redwings, to make what
is here called pot pie, even amidst a profusion of so many better things. The
eggs, on the contrary, are very delicate, and I am astonished that those who are
so anxious for the destruction of these birds do not gratify their wishes by
eating them while yet in the egg. In some parts of Louisiana, the planters
steep the seed corn for a few hours in a solution of Glauber's salt, to deter
the Grakles and other birds from eating the grains when just planted.
The Purple Grakle travels very far north. I have found it everywhere
during my peregrinations, and in one or two instances have seen it form its nest
in the fissures of rocks.
According to Dr. RICHARDSON, this species reaches the plains of the
Saskatchewan in the beginning of May, in flocks of from twenty to a hundred, the
males and females separate; and, as in Pennsylvania, several pairs nestle on the
branches of the same tree. I have found it dispersed over the country from
Texas to Nova Scotia, but met with none in Newfoundland or Labrador. It was not
observed by Dr. TOWNSEND on the Columbia river.
Dr. BACHMAN, who has seen it building in the hollows of trees, and in
abandoned nests of Woodpeckers, has observed it carrying grass and mud for the
construction of its nest. It breeds in like situations in Louisiana, without
using these materials; and in the middle and northern districts forms a fine,
well-finished nest, such as I have described. The eggs measure one inch and
half an eighth in length, by five and a half eighths in breadth, are of a
bluish-white colour, blotched, streaked, and spotted with brown and black. On
the Florida Keys I found this species breeding in low mangroves, in communities,
along with the White-headed Pigeon, Columba leucocephala, and thought that the
glossy richness of the plumage far exceeded that of our northern birds; yet, on
close examination, I could observe no other difference in them. I have also
found them breeding westward of the mouths of the Mississippi, as far as the
PURPLE GRAKLE, Gracula quiscala, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. iii. p. 44.
PURPLE GRAKLE, Gracula quiscala, Bonap. Amer. Orn., vol. i. p. 42.
GRACULA QUISCALA, Bonap. Syn., p. 54.
COMMON CROW BLACKBIRD, Quiscalus versicolor, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 194;vol. v. p. 481.
QUISCALUS VERSICOLOR, Common Purple Boat-tail, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii. p. 485.
PURPLE GRAKLE or COMMON CROW BLACKBIRD, Quiscalus versicolor,
Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. i. p. 35; vol. v. p. 481.
Tail long, much rounded, with the feathers flat. Male with the plumage
silky and splendent, the head, neck, and anterior part of the breast blackish,
with vivid reflections of violet, steel-blue, and green; general colour of the
body dusky, glossed with purple, green, and blue, these colours arranged in
three terminal zones, on each feather; rump violet-purple; wings and tail black,
glossed with green and blue. Female considerably smaller, with the body more
brown, the reflections much less brilliant. Young brown.
Male, 13, 19. Female, 11, 16.
Breeds from Texas to the Fur Countries. Resident in the Southern States.
A male preserved in spirits measures to end of tail 11 1/2 inches, to end
of wings 8 3/4 to end of claws 10; wing from flexure 6; tail 5; extent of wings
The mouth is rather narrow, its width being 6 1/2 twelfths; the palate
ascending, with two papillate ridges, the space between which and the margin of
the posterior nasal aperture is also papillate. The latter is 6 twelfths long,
linear, and margined with strong papillae. There are three ridges on the
anterior part of the roof of the mouth, of which the middle is much stronger, at
the base large, prominent, and hard, being similar to the knob observed in the
Buntings, but much more elongated. The tongue is slender, 9 twelfths long,
emarginate and papillate at the base, grooved above, horny toward the end,
slightly lacerated, and slit at the tip. The oesophagus,
[a b c d], is 4 1/4
inches long, 5 twelfths in width at the commencement; then for the length of
nearly two inches dilated to 7 1/2 twelfths; on entering the thorax contracted
to 4 twelfths. The stomach, [d e], is of moderate size, round, a little
compressed, moderately muscular, the right muscle 3 twelfths, the left 2 1/2
twelfths thick; the epithelium dense, horny, slightly rugous, with two roundish
slightly concave grinding surfaces. The oesophagus contains two grains of
maize, and the stomach is distended with fragments of the same, together with
portions of husks and grains of sand. The intestine, [f g h i j k], is of
moderate length and rather wide, being 16 inches long, and from 4 twelfths to
2 1/2 twelfths wide; the duodenum, [f g h], curves in the usual manner,
returning at the distance of two inches; the coeca, [i], which come off at the
distance of 1 1/2 inches from the extremity, are 1 1/2 inches long, but only 1/2
twelfth in width; the rectum gradually enlarges into an oblong cloaca, (j),
about 5 twelfths in width.
The trachea is 3 inches long, moderately flattened, 1 1/2 twelfths in
breadth, its rings firm, and about 60 in number, with 2 additional dimidiate
rings. The lateral muscles are slender, as are the sterno-tracheal; there are
four pairs of large inferior laryngeal muscles. The bronchi are of moderate
size, with about 15 half rings.
THE MAIZE OR INDIAN CORN.
ZEA MAYS, Willd., Sp. Pl., vol. iv. p. 200.
Pursh, Flor. Americ., p. 46.
--MONOECIA TRIANDRIA, Linn.--GRAMINEAE, Juss.