The uncommon iridescence of a common Florida blackbird!

Uncommon Iridescence of the Common Crow

Iridescence is an optical phenomenon with noticeable changes in hue depending on the viewing angle and the angle of illumination. Typical examples of this are insect wings, soap bubbles, oily surfaces or the pearly layers of various sea shells. However, some of the most common of birds are graced with a glorious iridescent sheen as they catch the sunlight. Many times when shooting my favourite herons and egrets, I have been distracted by such beauty when a common Florida blackbird would alight nearby and tease me with its shimmering sheen only to dart away. Generally, they are too quick for me but once in awhile one of these hyper busy fellows will reward me with a cool glance before flying off.

Crows, ravens and blackbirds can be easily confused by their first glance similarities. This slender, stately bird is the male Boat-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus major) which lives in the Florida coastal marshes and wetlands. This particular grackle species is a coastal salt mash dweller and is only known to occur inland in the State of Florida.  While similar, crows belong to the family Corvidae that  includes  ravens, jays,  and magpies. Grackles belong to the family Icteridae which includes blackbirds, orioles, meadowlarks and bobolinks. Though similar in appearance the crow is larger attaining between 15 and 20 inches in height  and a wingspan of 33 to 39 inches. The grackle grows to between 11 and 13 inches tall and has a wingspan of 14 to 18 inches. Crows are completely black with a sheen to their feathers.  At a distance, the grackle appears black with the same sheen, but up close it has a dark purple head, brilliant bluish highlights, and bronze coloration to parts of the body varying a bit depending on the species.  The eyes are also a give-away as typical grackle eye color is yellow, while the crow’s are black. Although, in Florida and the gulf coast the Boat-tailed grackle has dark eyes. The one pictured here has dark reddish-brown colored eyes, the colorful iridescent sheen typical of its species, and the long, wedged shaped tail!! But, watch for the glorious colors shimmering out of the black and the more slender body with elongated tail and you’ll probably not confuse with the crows.

Audubon was quite taken with the characteristic iridescence of grackles describing  the Purple Grackle  ( Quiscalus versicolor, Viell) (or Common Crow-Blackbird as it was known then) as he observed them in  Louisiana where much to the irritation of farmers they devoured young corn plants.

“No sooner has the cotton or corn planter begun to turn his land into brown furrows, that 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 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.”

Grackles are considered a nuisance bird by some,  but like the very iridescence which defines their species, it depends on your angle of view.  Is the humble blackbird just a common marshland sight easily confused with a crow or a beautifully reflective wonder tossing back waves of color like the ocean catching the sun?




~ by Judy on August 9, 2013.

15 Responses to “The uncommon iridescence of a common Florida blackbird!”

  1. fascinating, amazing picture! Would you mind me sharing it? Best regards, Martin

  2. I’d noticed occasionally, but never quite thought much about, the iridescence of some black birds. Thank you for capturing it!

    • I was kind of like that too really, not thinking too much about it. But, when you have a camera in hand and see that beautiful sheen, you want to capture it and find a way to show it off. It was good that this capture had the bird looking my direction which made it nicer to work with than some shots I had. I thought the steely colors would be interesting against a metallic style background.

  3. Oh, now you’re talking about a bird that I have plenty of experience with! The boat-tailed grackles are thick here. They gather in huge crowds on the wires, they roost in the palm trees, and in the spring, when the boys are showing off for the girls, it’s a sight to behold! They strut, they flare their tails, they make the most unearthly noise, like an unoiled spring being stretched.

    I found this delightful video of two males competing against one another . Check out the female who shows up toward the end. I don’t think she’s very impressed!

    And then there’s this. They seem to love grocery store parking lots. They are just thick at certain times of the year in Austin, Houston, San Antonio – all over. My grocery store is a favored target – I’d say they stretch for two city blocks, covering wires, trees, cars – it’s utterly amazing.

    Some people can’t stand them. I love them. I think they’re funny and beautiful. So they’re a bit loud-mouthish. No one’s perfect!

    And that is a beautiful portrait!

    • That is interesting about the grocery store parking lots as I see birds lined up on intersection power lines similarly and thought them to be sparrows. I must look more closely. I will say that the observations I have made of the iridescent blackbirds have been around coastal Merritt Island and more inland at the Wakodahatchee Wetlands. I always just thought they were crows looking pretty in the sunlight..until I really looked them up and realized the crows are stouter in shape than these more elegant blackbirds, iridescense notwithstanding. While I have admired, I have only just learned about Grackles!! ‘Bout time I suppose!!

      Thanks for the interesting links you have given above as they are great visuals and the sounds are great too. I agree, the female did not seem too taken with the males!!

  4. Wow, how lucky to catch this fellow! So beautiful, Judy! I love all the birds in the corvid family. Thanks for the wonderful background on this stunning family of birds!

    • I have taken pictures here and there of these birds always meaning to do something to show their lovely colors in the light. This is what happens when you can’t get out to shoot; you do stuff you meant to with things you already have!! I visualized the iridescense against a steely background and so did that. Some experimentation with a golden background was kind of cool too though. Sigh!! So many choices.

      • The photo looks stunning! I think your treatment of it is lovely. Sometimes it’s good to be inside creating in a different way!

  5. What a STUNNING portrait; by far one of my all-time favorites! I’ve always been taken by these birds’ lovely iridescence. Despite their commonality, they’re stunning creatures.

    A perfect Halloween card! 🙂

  6. Remember when I used the words magician and sorceress and conjuring? This photo shows all three at play. Absolutely bewitching photo Judy!

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