Grackles & Bread Dipping - An Ancient Ritual?
Photo compliments of Margaret McRae
Have you noticed that Grackles oftentimes dip their food in water before eating it? I really had not noticed this until the heat and drought kicked in this year and I was having to refill my bird bath two to three times per day - thus paying more attention than usual to my bird bath and its visitors. I guess I thought the Grackles were simply drinking more frequently due to the oppressive heat, but upon closer inspection I discovered they were actually repeatedly dipping stale bread they obtained from my platform feeder into the bird bath water before swallowing it. This was confirmed when I performed maintenance on my solar bird bath fountain and found gunky bread dough had become caught up in the small water pump. I had indeed seen sunflower seed floating in the bird bath as well over the past few weeks, but thought it had simply drifted over there with the wind. Now, I feel confident the Grackles had attempted to dip the seed, among other bird food items, in the water too.
Most of you are quite familiar with Grackles, I'm sure. And those of you that feed the birds are probably more attuned to their loud squawks, their ability to completely overtake a feeder and their interesting mating dances. Believe it or not, there are 11 species of Grackles. They are native to North and South America and three of the eleven species are known to inhabit the United States - the Common Grackle, the Boat Tail and the Great Tail. These species are very similar in appearance as they are large, iridescent black birds with black bills, yellow eyes and lengthy legs and tails. Females of the species are a less-striking brown in color and are usually not as glossy as the males. Grackles are among the largest of passerines, or perching birds, as they can grow up to 18 inches in length.
A lesser known fact about Grackles is they can mock other birds and sometimes even people. They are not as talented as mockingbirds or American crows, however. Grackles also participate in "anting", a behavior whereby a bird purposely sits in an ant bed and allows disturbed ants to crawl all over them and sting! It is thought the chemicals excreted during ant stings kills tiny parasites that may exist on a bird and helps with the overall preening of its feathers. Sounds kindof like some of the torture we human females endure to stay "groomed", doesn't it?
Well, with my curiosity up after observing Grackles repeatedly dipping food in my bird bath, I was led to research this particular odd behavior in more detail. I wondered if this was just a passing thing the birds were doing due to the unusually very hot summer we are having this season. Maybe the water served to cool down the food or simply added much needed moisture to the food? Bread, no matter how stale it is, truly doesn't need to be dipped in water to be palatable to most birds. Neither does seed for that matter.
Well, this is what I learned:
Apparently it is unanimous that dipping food in water is a common trait of the "Carib" species of Grackle. Some folks indeed believe it is common practice among all types of Grackles. However, in a nutshell, different people believe different species of Grackles dip their food for different reasons!
In the United States, the most widespread theory is Grackles do this to simply soften their food - even when the food is relatively soft already. With regard to rock hard food, Grackles are known to steal left-over dog food kibble and soak it in water until it becomes moist. I suppose this is understandable since dry dog food pellets would certainly be hard for any bird to swallow!
Another theory is that since Grackles' ancestors are thought to have been "water birds", by nature they may have developed an instinct to "fish" for their food. Even today, Grackles will eat minnows and tadpoles from ponds on occasion. This instinct may be so ingrained in them that although most Grackles no longer live in true marine areas, they crave having "fished" for their food - so they dip their food to access that perception.
A similar theory is that instead of dipping food to create that "just caught from the sea" sensation, it is thought Grackles do this to wash away any perceived sand from their food. And again, although most Grackles no longer live among the islands, through instinct they may continue this sand-cleaning behavior today.
I recall as a kid my mom would oftentimes become frustrated with the Grackles in our yard. They are indeed bullies toward the smaller birds (unfortunately, sometimes eating them) and they are very loud, aggressive, and raucous. Not to mention they leave behind quite a mess if a group of them is perched in one place long enough. To this day my mom claims Hurricane Carla of 1961 blew a bunch of Grackles inland (along with other birds such as seagulls and herons) from the Caribbean Islands and here they decided to stay. I was born in '61, so I really can't say from personal observation if there were Grackles in Dallas before that time or not. Considering Grackles may have indeed evolved from water birds and that they supposedly still dip their food to clean off imaginary beach sand . . . my mom's story actually doesn't seem all that far-fetched. Actually, while the Common Grackle probably already existed in the Dallas area in '61, perhaps a few dipping Carib Grackles were indeed blown in with the 175 mph hurricane winds after all!
Well, however and whenever Grackles first arrived in the United States, one thing is for certain - they continue to enjoy and appreciate water to this day - and for more reasons than just drinking and bathing. Whether you are a Grackle fan or not, I encourage you to take a closer look at them around your feeders and bird baths next time and see if you witness the odd and possibly, ancient, ritual of bread dipping!
Until next time -
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