Starling or Grackle? Beginners Guide to Backyard Birds

First off let me preface this by saying that birding is one of the many areas that I have passable knowledge in; in other words, I could probably impress the average non birding shmoe with my knowledge, but would just embarrass myself in the presence of a master. That said, I apologize for any regional disparities between images here. I chose basically the first decent one that popped up on google images and looked like those I have seen in my yard.

Now to the good stuff. Most folks probably see some birds from time to time. I’m pretty sure they live on every continent because even Antarctica has penguins. But have you ever seen a bird and just not know what the heck it is? If you live in New England, I’m here to help! (this doesn’t really work for penguins sorry). Lots of people have a base knowledge of birds which they then apply to every bird they see after, and if that works for you and you could care less thats totally fine. But if you have a bird feeder and keep wondering about that one little dude you keep seeing but only know that he is NOT a sparrow, here’s how to tell some of New England’s most common birds apart. Lets start off easy:

birds 1

You have likely seen these guys around. Pigeons are considered by many to be sky-rats of cities, but they have a much pleasanter cousin who prefers the quieter suburbs and countryside. Mourning Doves are most recognizable for their coo-cooooo call (a ‘mournful’ sound I guess). They love to hang out on telephone wires, and fly very gracefully. Usually you will see them alone or in pairs.

birds 2

Most people know what a Blue Jay is, even if you haven’t seen many. They are known for being very rowdy and obnoxious, basically shoving any other birds out to feed when they alight on a feeder. The Blue Bird in comparison is a shy guy with a pleasant chirp. Now here’s something fun, that guy on the end? NOT A BLUE BIRD. I know, I know, you would assume that if someone named something the Blue Bird they would name the BLUEST bird around that, but a true Blue Bird is the middle guy. The last guy is an Indigo Bunting. They are REALLY blue and seem to be rare around here. I have only ever seen a few.

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Both of these types of birds are considered pests most of the time, but I haven’t had an issue with either myself. Crows can get a little rowdy and disturb nesting birds, but they are also a great warning for approaching Hawks and typically stay high in the trees so don’t cause too much trouble. Also they make great sounds. Most bigger black birds you see will be crows, I’m not sure I have EVER seen a Raven around here, and they are significantly bigger and poofier whereas the Crow is sleeker. Starlings can appear almost black, and like Crows usually travel in groups, though typically larger ones. They too can be noisy and have been known to ravage feeders, but like I said, I haven’t had many issues. They are not native to America and are considered an invasive species. The females are  browner in color.

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Most people couldn’t tell a Starling and a Grackle apart in a lineup which is where the Starling’s bad name may come from because Grackles are AWFUL. They are very loud (they sound like pterodactyls or something), travel in groups, and will eat just about anything. So that nice suet you have been using to try to tempt a cute Downy Woodpecker? FORGET IT. GONZO.

Mind you, they are pretty. Their feathers kind of look like oil, black with a rainbow sheen. But they are the pest bird that I think of first. Seeing the Grackle, many would probably call it a Blackbird on instinct, and the two are similar especially if the grackle isn’t super shiny. But Blackirds have smaller beaks and are ‘true black’. Not to mention less annoying. Here we have a Red Wing Blackbird, and the ones near me usually fly solo. At a quick glance their size and color can be confused with an Oriole. Orioles love to feed from blossoming apple trees and the like, so if you want to attract them get some flowering trees.

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If you want a cool sounding bird you can’t go wrong with a Cat Bird. They literally sound like cats, that is unless they are copying other birds, which they also do. I even heard one make car sounds once. Cat Birds are a beautiful smokey grey color. If you are interested in hearing side by sides of some of the sounds Cat Birds can make check this out:


Cow Birds typically hang in farming areas, and like fields of tall grass. Though they don’t look all that interesting their nesting behavior is incredible. Like Cuckoos they are parasitic nesters, meaning they lay their eggs in other birds nests (and have even been known to try with hummingbirds and raptors like hawks!). Ironically enough they fail at this 95% when they try to pull it on the Cat Bird, who ain’t no fool. I highly recommend reading up on them because they are really interesting:

Robins also like fields but prefer short grass, and their favorite prey is the worm (they are the literal morning bird) and when you stay up way too late until you hear birds start chirping it’s usually the Robin you will hear. They are easy to identify thanks to their red breasts.

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Another fella known for sporting red is the Downy Woodpecker. They are small woodpeckers, but when they decide to knock on the side of your house for food they can cause a BIG racket. Annoyances aside, Downy’s are very cute, inquisitive birds who love suet and creeping up along the trunks of trees searching for bugs. However they don’t creep as much as the Creeper! The Creeper is not creepy at all, but you will know one when you see it by the way it scuttles up the sides of trees like a feathery crab. The Creeper eats insects too, but rather than pecking into the bark it  just goes for the ones hanging around on the outside of the tree. Another tree climber is the Nuthatch. Nuthatches are interesting in that some look like Creepers and some look like Chickadees, but body and beak shape can help separate them all. Never rely only on color or habitat! The Chickadee is a very pleasant little bird, sort of the darling of New England I think. They are common feeder birds and have a nice voice with many different recognizable calls.

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Other common feeder birds are sparrows and finches. Brown Finches and Sparrows can be VERY hard to tell apart but your best bet is beak shape. If your bird has a think triangle shaped beak for cracking open shells, finch. If its a smaller thinner beak, Sparrow. Goldfinches however are very recognizable and very popular and sought after feeder birds. Sparrows calls are that incessant chattering chirping you hear from many birds at once in the trees.

Oddly enough I had a pet Sparrow for a brief time many years ago, after a neighbor brought a naked newborn chick to my families door and we took it in and raised it. It wasn’t easy and my mom realized how tough being a mom bird was considering babies have to be fed damn near constantly to survive, but I have to admit, having a bird learn how to fly in your bedroom and landing on your head is pretty sweet. It was like being in a Disney movie. One of the most magical parts was a mated pair of Cardinals who took an interest to young Petey when they heard him crying though the window for food. For the heck of it my mother opened the window and they came right inside and fed him from the sill like he was their own!

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Though male Cardinals are pretty obvious I included a female here to show the difference. Next to her is another crowned bird, the Tufted Titmouse. Titmice (humorous name aside) a tiny little things and super cute. They are also feeder birds, but are a little shyer than Finches, Sparrows and Chickadees.

So thats about it for Backyard Birds! I hope you learned a little something and enjoyed this (my first blog post). It certainly isn’t all there is to know, but its a good base. I might do another edition with other kinds of birds (Sea Birds, Predatory Birds, who knows!) so if you enjoyed this blog post let me know! Also feel free to send me idea or requests about any topics you would be interested in hearing about on here, I’m pretty open to everything. Thank you, and stay curious!

5 thoughts on “Starling or Grackle? Beginners Guide to Backyard Birds

  1. Great blog, Elise! I love birds, but know next to nothing so I will be reading and when I can’t identify one, I know who to contact! 🙂 I took some (not so great) pics of a funny looking bird when I was in Cohasset, and finally identified it as a belted kingfisher. Interesting looking bird. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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