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Grackle vs Starling: Key Differences (Top 9 Factors)

3 birds on snowy ground

Last Updated: September 20, 2022

Among the blackbirds in the northern continent, you only get to encounter a few of them in each region. Such birds are well-known for inhabiting many habitats; hence, they are familiar to many birding enthusiasts.

Nevertheless...

Some of these birds are similar-looking at first glance, like the European starling and the common grackle, making identification pretty challenging. Their resemblances can be confounding, especially for new birders spotting them at feeders.

Thus, please continue reading if you wish to know more about these two birds as we go over a comprehensive comparison between starling vs grackle.

Main Differences Between Grackles And Starlings

The main difference between grackles and starlings are:

  • The grackle is a larger bird, whereas the starling is a smaller black bird.
  • A grackle features a longer tail, whereas the starling has a shorter tail.
  • Grackles' legs are dark, whereas starlings have pinkish legs.
  • Grackles prefer the open grasslands, whereas starlings like dwelling in towns.

The Diversity Of Grackles, Starlings, And Similar-Looking Species

The confusion in identifying the starling or grackle can be typical among birdwatchers since many notice how these creatures often flock together. You might even see these two hanging out at feeders or flocking with the rusty blackbird and the cowbird.

Occasionally, people confuse one for the other and even think they are in the same family.

To avoid such misconceptions among blackbirds, remember that ravens are members of the Corvidae family, as are the American crow and the blue jay. Grackles are members of the Icteridae family, as are various blackbirds such as meadowlarks, Bobolinks, and orioles.

Both birds might have nearly identical glossy, black plumes, but aside from comparing starling vs grackle, there are still other similar-looking birds.

With that in mind, an in-depth comparison of grackle vs starling would help recognize these two birds and tell each one apart from the other.

1. Distribution

The grackle population is prevalent across North America and is a year-round resident bird in most of its range. Despite being a bird problem to farmers, a grackle prospers well in European settlement.

Like the house sparrow, the European starling is not a native bird species in the northern region.

Shakespeare enthusiasts brought starlings to the north in 1890, which are now among the continent's most abundant songbirds. These birds are one of the earliest nesting passerines in the Midwest, migrating during the daytime like the starling and cowbird.

Among the three grackle species, the boat tailed grackle has the most limited range, rarely away from its breeding ground. Meanwhile, the common and the great tailed grackle have overlapping ranges.

Fun Fact: The grackle is also one of the most common birds in Maryland!

2. Body Size And Appearance

Common grackles are easily identifiable by their sharp, tapered bills and yellow eyes. These blackbirds are taller and have sizable bodies with long, keel-shaped tails. Starlings, cowbirds, and blackbirds are smaller-sized than the grackles, and the other larger-sized birds like the crow, and the common raven.

Even the cowbird is smaller than the grackle and has a shorter tail. Moreover, a blackbird has a medium-sized beak, a cowbird's beak is thicker, and a breeding starling has a tapered beak in bright yellow.

3. Plumage Color

Grackle
Grackle

The grackles have glossy-iridescent plumages. Aside from the glossy black feathers, the male grackle also shows bronze, purple, or green iridescence on the back, depending on its variation. On the other hand, a female grackle has a dull overall look and is slightly smaller.

A quick look makes starlings seem entirely black; its dark sheen is one of the few things why some individuals are confused between starlings and grackles.

Although, a closer glimpse reveals that their heads and underparts to the breast are hues of iridescent purple and some green on the flanks. Unlike its parents' glossy, metallic black plumage, a starling juvenile has a pale brown shade. 

A starling's upper body has a dark shade with subtle flecks on its rump, wings, and mantle. The male starling has fewer spots than the female starling; both sexes have yellow bills and pinkish legs.

4. Habitat

Grackles are well-adapted to human environments, and so are the starlings.

But a starling prefers grasslands, clifftops, and gardens with scattered trees, feeding on worms and small insects in its natural habitat. You will notice how such a bird spends winter nights roosting in parks.

By contrast, you are likely to spot the grackle in suburban areas, open spaces, city parks, and most especially, wetlands for its nesting site preference.

5. Nesting

Grackles prefer roosting in conifers and areas near water, like willow swamps. The bird makes its nest from twigs and weeds, lining them with dried grass, rags, or feathers and keeping it together with mud or cow dung.

It is typical for starlings and grackles to gather into flocks in the days following nesting season.

Starlings are hole-nesters, with quite an ill reputation as it competes for nesting cavities. These birds like to nest in trees such as the flat-topped acacias in some parts of the savanna. The starling also looks for old trees, holes, and crevices as its nesting site.

Adult Starling Feeding Hatchlings
Adult Starling Feeding Hatchlings

Fun Fact: You could make grackles live securely and happily by checking the best bird houses for sale on the market and providing them with a few in your backyard!

6. Diet And Feeding Style

Like the American crow, blue jay, northern cardinal, red winged blackbird, white-throated sparrow, and the American robin, the grackle is also a ground-feeding species. Grackles are fond of foraging the ground for beetles, flies, minnows in streams, and small vertebrates.

This bird likes feeding in a large flock and frequents backyards since the grackle enjoys a tube feeder just like the house finch.

While the starlings are not fussy about their diet, feeding on kitchen scraps and leftovers from restaurants, grackles dislike safflower seeds.

Further, a starling will readily gobble the suet and other food on winter feeding shelves. Therefore, landowners avoiding such a pest bird will place an upside-down suet feeder, while others use starling-proof feeders to deter their unwanted presence in backyards.

Several people even avoid filling their feeders with birdseed mixes to avoid attracting this bird, the house sparrow, and the brown headed cowbird. Starlings are crazy about suet, but only if it comes with cracked corn or peanuts, so try plain suet to discourage them from your feeders.

7. Behavior

The grackle has quite a reputation for its seasonal behavior, nesting, and breeding in solitude or with a small flock during springtime. But you will also notice how grackles join a large flock during the colder months.

One thing in common that's pretty noticeable with either a grackle or starling is how both birds can be very loud and have broad vocabularies.

A starling is unmistakable with its typical aggressive behavior; it is an unwelcome guest at feeders for being invasive. Such a bird can discourage some songbirds from coming to the yard.

8. Breeding

You will never run out of studies on the life history and management of blackbirds, as many would be interested in studying their kind. Additionally, blackbirds are relatively easy to access and observe. Such creatures show a range of breeding strategies. 

There's the polygyny of a red winged blackbird, a common grackle's monogamy, and brood parasitism in brown headed cowbirds.

As for the starlings, the male chooses a breeding ground, waving its wings when a female is nearby. You might encounter the male picking up leaves and going in and out of the nesting cavity when the female is near the nest site.

9. Vocalization

Grackles have deep and harsh-sounding calls; while they can mimic other birds, they are not as proficient as the others in imitating sounds. Unlike the grackle, though, a starling doesn't sound like a tropical bird that just flew out from the jungle.

A starling sings with progressively increasing energy and enthusiasm until the finale. Being a relative of the mynah bird, the starling is likewise a great songbird as well. It has distinctive vocalization and is pretty outstanding at mimicry.


Frequently Asked Questions

What are the most common nuisance birds in North America?

The sparrows for driving native birds away, starlings for their bird droppings, and rock pigeons for disease transmission, are common nuisance birds. There are different bird control methods you can try without harming the birds.

It's best to check out different bird control options first before taking action. You can try proofing methods, use bird traps, or avoid offering food that attracts invasive species to your feeders. If it's causing so much trouble, temporarily stop using feeders and remove your nest boxes.

What seed can attract grackles to your bird feeder?

It's easy to please grackles when it comes to their food preferences. You will have no trouble getting them to your feeders if you offer them cracked corn and sunflower seed. Aside from such a seed in tube feeders, hopper, tray, and suet feeders also attract these birds.

Now, if you want to do otherwise and not have the grackles visit your backyard feeders, try offering them a safflower seed. See how this seed can work wonders in keeping them away.

Can you take down invasive species in the United States?

If you are experiencing a bird problem, identify what species it is to determine the appropriate course of action. You may secure a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for suitable bird control methods to help you with such a problem.


Conclusion

Understanding the difference between starlings and grackles, or how they are similar, is the best way to start. When distinguishing whether it's a grackle or starling visiting your backyard feeders, using the plumage colors as the sole basis for identification may cause more confusion.

While such field marks can be helpful, it will be more efficient to become more familiar with size, shape, habitat, behavior, diet, and plumage colors.

Most backyard birds have a special bond with us, but they can wear out their welcome sometimes. Try habitat manipulation or frightening devices to scare these birds away with no harm when that occurs. Oh, and please don't forget the wonders that safflower can do.

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