Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Grackles, changos or talingos? Myths and truths

If you visit Panama, probably one of the very first birds you will see will be a Great-tailed Grackle (certainly only second after a Black Vulture). Like many other grackles species, the Great-tailed is an aggressive and very adaptable bird that triumphs in man-made habitats... like our cities. Many of the citizens that does not ignore them, despice them arguing that they are evil and will readily kill any other bird if necessary or only for fun. The truth is that these social birds are real survivors, a complete success of nature that simply knew how to take advantage of us and our food sources. Here in Panama many myths exist about these birds, some with true basis, many others without it.

M. Those birds are talingos. Despite there is not such a thing like a consensus of common names in spanish, the truth is that our grandpas readily recognize the differences among anis (the true talingo) and grackles, which they call changos. Probably the confusion arose by the similarity in color (despite the anis are dull-black, not glossy-black like the males grackles) and the careless observations of the first citizens that named the grackles.
M. They were introduced to Panama during the construction of the canal to control the insects. Panama is part of the natural range of these birds, which extends from southern United States to northwest Peru. In any case, these birds are omnivorous and most of their diet (60%) consist of vegetal matter, not insects. Definitively, they became abundant in and around Panama City (and other cities) in the same way the city became bigger, offering more food sources to the grackles and are naturally expanding their range northward into the United States since the 1960s.
M. They are crows, or at least related to them. The grackles have nothing to do with crows or its relatives the jays. They belong to the Icteridae family, which also includes the more colourful meadowlarks, oropendolas and orioles, but also many other species of blackbirds. Again, the completely black plumage of the adult male brought confusion.
M. The black birds are changos (or talingos), and the brown ones accompanying them are cascas. Casca is the common name of other common bird in the city: the Clay-colored Thrush. Since many citizens recognize the changos as complete black birds, then the obvious conclusion is that the brown ones must be other thing. The truth is that grackles exhibit sexual dimorphism... males and females are not alike. The female is essentially smaller, with dark-brown back and buffy-brown eyebrow and underparts. The juveniles are like the females.
M. The changos (grackles) finished with the talingos (anis). This is a common myth among our grandpas. Both, grackles and anis, are pretty common in their respective habitats. The problem is that most citizens do not often visit the correct habitat for anis, because is not longer found close to the city. Many others simply don't know how to tell apart an ani from a grackle.
M. The changos call the rain. This is due to people trying to explain the bill-up courting display of the males, which usually occurs during the rainy season in Panama and elsewhere, so it is not infrequent to see rain just after seeing this display... or any other!
M. Grackles are cold-blood murderers. The truth is that the grackles do kill smaller birds or other animals, but only to get a meal or to eliminate competition (as in feeders, for example). Is a natural behavior and part of the reason why they are so successful. They are not "mean birds" or "murderers". If you are having problems with grackles at your feeders try to use a tube feeder with short perches or sue feeders requiring birds to cling upside-down. This will discourage the grackles to feed in them. Do not offer food in wide and open platforms or on the ground.
M. They are fearless birds that will not hesitate to attack you without warning. They do are fearless... when protecting their youngs. If you are attacked by grackles, then probably you ignored the signs that were indicating that you was approaching a nest with young birds, like alarm calls and screamings.
So, next time you see one of these birds, try to appreciate how well-adapted and smart are them, its shiny plumage and its social skills. If you know any other myth about these birds let me know in the comments.
This post has been submitted to Bird Photography Weekly # 101.


  1. my buddy is a chango
    this site is so helpful

  2. this info is so helpful, thanks for share it

  3. They beg for food by sitting next to you and keeping their mouth open. Not a myth. It's true. Lol