Its large yellow eye followed my every move, probably hoping I had something to eat in my hand. I had nothing but the book I was reading. Besides the yellow eye, it had a black bill, and was about the size of a robin, just a little bigger. I couldn’t see its color clearly, but it looked black, or maybe dull brown. I didn’t really know any birds besides robins and pigeons; birds were not common along the New York City sidewalks where I lived. I was just about to lose interest when it moved into the sun.
It wasn’t black at all! Its head was kind of blue, its back kind of purple, but when it moved, the sun changed all those colors and it seemed purple, green, and blue all at once. Iridescent, my uncle told me later. At the time, I was just fascinated; it made me think of the stained glass windows of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It strutted closer, stopping about three feet away from where I sat frozen in my chair, afraid I’d scare it away. It was so pretty!
I spotted what the bird was after, a piece of my sandwich caught under the chair next to me. Just as I saw the chunk of bread, the bird croaked, raised its wings, and charged toward some other smaller brown birds which were clustered not too far away. They took off, and the iridescent one strutted around, showing off. Its attitude made me laugh.
When it finally flew away, I tossed my book aside and ran to tell Uncle Tony about my discovery. I knew he could tell me what this strange bird was.
Except he didn’t. He listened to my detailed description, nodded, and said I’d done a good job. He knew what bird I meant, and if I wanted to find out what it was called, there was a book in the room where I slept that would help me figure it out.
Why couldn’t he just tell me? Instead, he took me upstairs and showed me the book he meant. It was green and about four inches thick. It had beautiful, colored pictures on almost every page, with sections for mammals, reptiles, and birds.
To me it was like exploring a gold mine. I loved to read, and I loved animals. But finally I quit looking at the other sections and sat down with the pictures of birds. I had to page through lots of ducks and shorebirds, but I finally found a group of black birds that looked like my yellow-eyed friend in the garden. And, there he was, a Common (Purple) Grackle.
I didn’t think he was that common; after all, I’d never seen one before. But when I read the description, everything matched—the yellow eye, the croaking noise, and the shiny, iridescent colors glinting in the sun. Even how he strutted and chased other birds away matched the description. I marched downstairs with one finger holding my place, sat down in my chair, and waited. Sure enough, a few minutes later Mr. Grackle showed back up, this time claiming first place at Aunt Marge’s bird feeder under the weeping willow.
I compared the picture to the bird, and had the oddest feeling, like I’d done something special. They matched exactly; the picture in the book could have been the same individual. Then I noticed nearby the little brown birds the grackle had chased away. Were they in the book, too?
It took me longer this time, because there were three types of birds, and they were very similar. But I finally decided I was looking at what the book called an English Sparrow (or a House Sparrow), a Song Sparrow, and a Chipping Sparrow. The English Sparrow was easy to identify with his black bib, but the other two took a lot of work.
For the rest of the afternoon, I sat with my book and watched and learned. The red cardinal was easy, but his brown mate mixed me up because I thought she was another bird completely. There was a House Wren in the birdhouse near the kitchen window, and the noisy, bright blue and white bird that could chase away my grackle I identified as a Blue Jay. By the time I went in to dinner, I had identified over twenty birds, and I’ve never stopped.
It was Uncle Tony who suggested I write them down so I could share with my parents when I got home, and it was also Uncle Tony who bought me a smaller easier-to-carry bird identification book. I’ve been a birder ever since.
And although grackles are considered nuisance birds by most people, I welcome them at my feeders and look for them on the roadside or in my yard. You see, if I had never been watched by a grackle, I might never have become a birder, and I would have missed much of the beauty of God’s creation.