Wednesday, May 29, 2013

GRACKLES AT LUNCH

Waiting for crumbs to drop
A few weeks ago while we sat on the patio at Rembrandt’s Café in Chattanooga, Tennessee eating a late lunch, two grackles joined us – bold birds that settled on tables and ate from plates holding half-eaten rolls and other baked goods like blueberry muffins and crème-filled pastries.
Now, I’m in a minority of people who like ravens, blackbirds, crows, and grackles because most people regard them as public nuisances. I got my first glimpse of grackles in Texas en route to Mexico when I awakened one morning to the sound of loud screeching noises that some bird enthusiasts describe as “rusty hinges squeaking.” I ran outside and sighted a gaggle of these iridescent birds a friend identified as boat tail grackles. When we passed into interior Mexico, I searched for them, finding wonderful specimens on the grounds of a small motel in Victoria, Mexico. To me, the sound of grackles squeaking was a comforting noise like friendly voices in unknown territory.
For seven years, I got my “satisfied” sighting grackles in Austin, Texas where I traveled to serve on the Board of Trustees of the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest – they paraded on the grounds of the Holiday Inn Express in large numbers, and most guests complained about their harsh cries. While there, I read several newspaper articles denouncing boat tail grackles as public nuisances. Later, I learned that these grackles nest in southwestern Louisiana, but I’ve never sighted one around my home in bayou country.
The birds I welcomed to my table the other day were common grackles who were trying to steal food from other birds, and I learned that they often snatch food from the beak of another bird, rushing forward to grab a morsel, quickly pecking it into digestible pieces. Research reveals that “anting” is a curious practice of the common grackle in which the bird rubs captured insects on its feathers to apply the liquid from the squashed bug (formic acid). To attract a mate? To polish the iridescent sheen of their coat?
Most outdoor diners who dislike grackles don’t know that large groups of them are known as “plagues,” a term with which they’d promptly agree. Farmers also have low regard for grackles because the birds are fond of grain and flock in large numbers to gather significant quantities of this crop.
Still, I threw my roll to a large grackle as I left the café, and he squeaked his appreciation for my charitable act. And as if I don’t have enough crow, blackbird, and raven poems, I went home to write “Grackles at Lunch:”
GRACKLES AT LUNCH
Grackle above flag

pause, dip their dark bills
into hard rolls left on our plates,

rolling yellow button eyes
at our wastefulness,

but we feed the poor,
an old injunction,

although those at other tables
ignore these commissions,

call the foragers thieves,
not beggars –

bad raps for sociable creatures
who remind me of Iran’s khalag birds,

strutting waiters in black aprons
clearing tables of nahn crumbs,

leaving behind empty Tuborg bottles
and wadded paper napkins,

imitating the notes of nightingales
and casting shadows like hawk-nosed Shahs

on a blue mosaic –
the fallen kingdoms of Persia.
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