To refresh your memory, here is the photo from October’s Bird Quiz. It was taken in Louisiana during the month of January. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify this bird.
This is a rather plain bird—no pretty colors, no striking field marks. Brown feathers, brown eyes, brown-black legs, charcoal beak. It has a proportionately long tail and a muted stripe through its eye. It’s large, as compared to the reed it’s perched on. The reeds also hint that it might prefer a damp habitat—the kind of place where reeds grow. Louisiana has a lot of places like that.
That’s not a lot to go on, but even the lack of markings is helpful. There aren’t a lot of big, brown birds flying around. We can immediately eliminate most birds—warblers, sparrows, finches, and other tiny little songbirds; waterfowl, raptors, swallows, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds. In fact, there aren’t a whole lot of choices.
Where do we look for a big, assertive-looking bird? There are some big birds among the Corvidae—Jays, Crows, and such. And, there are the longer-tailed grackles.
Crows and ravens are black, not brown, but there is a Brown Jay. It’s occasionally found at the far-southern tip of Texas, where its range barely crosses the Rio Grande. But hey, birds like to turn up in the most unlikely places, so could it be a Brown Jay?
Juvenile Brown Jays have bright yellow beaks, but in the mature adults the beak has turned black, like this bird. They’re also big with brown eyes and long tails. However, these jays also have a bright white belly. Our bird is brown all over. Good try, but it’s not a Brown Jay. How about a grackle?
There are two species of North American grackle with long tails—Great-tailed Grackles and Boat-tailed Grackles. Both are large birds, both are found in wetlands among the reeds and cattails, and both have brown females. The Great-tailed Grackle has a slightly larger wingspan, but that doesn’t help us here (or in the field). We’ll just have to study the field guide.
Both of these species have yellow eyes—but our bird’s eyes are brown! Are we on the wrong track? A bit more research turns up the fact that both female first-year eastern Great-tailed Grackles, and female Boat-tailed Grackles along parts of the Gulf Coast, have brown eyes. Interesting but not all that helpful.
Sibley describes the difference between these similar species according to color and the contrasting stripe near the eye (called a supercilium). Great-tailed Grackles tend to be more gray-brown and have a more distinctive supercilium, while Boat-tailed Grackles are a warmer brown and the supercilium “blends into the crown.” With her soft brown plumage and muted facial colors, I believe our bird is a Boat-tailed Grackle. Did you figure it out?