When you step off the plane in Costa Rica, you might see a few birds as soon as you exit the airport terminal. They will almost certainly be fair-sized all black or brown birds with long tails strutting on a sidewalk or perched on a telephone pole. They don’t seem to mind the crowds and in fact this common bird species thrives among people in Costa Rica. This is the Great-tailed Grackle or “zanate”; a bird species so common it can’t be missed. If you visit a plaza at dusk or dawn you will also be witness to the incredible racket this vociferous bird can make.
The identification of the Great-tailed Grackle is pretty straightforward. The males are the only all black, long-tailed birds with a straight bill in Costa Rica. A close look at the male reveals a striking bird with iridescent shiny plumage and yellow eyes. The only other all black birds with long tails in Costa Rica are Ani species. These, however, have short, parrot-like bills. The female Great-tailed Grackle is a long-tailed brown bird with a straight black bill. Clay-colored Robins are a bit similar but look gentler in appearance and have yellowish bills.
Behavior in Costa Rica
Great-tailed Grackles evolved to scavenge in marshy areas and along beaches in Costa Rica. They have kept this behavior, but in addition to seeing a few on the beach, you will probably see lots of Grackles walking on lawns and streets as they search for scraps of food. In general, Grackles are opportunists and will eat whatever they find or capture including the eggs and young of other bird species. For this reason, most birds will attempt to drive off Grackles from the vicinity of their nests.
Habitat and distribution in Costa Rica
The Great-tailed Grackle was historically found in marshy areas and along the coast. They still occur in such places and thrive near the water but are even more common around human habitations in Costa Rica. Great-tailed Grackles have adapted to cities, towns and suburbs where they use the plazas and parks for their nesting and roosting sites. Great-tailed Grackles occur in these habitats from the lowlands up to about 1,500 meters.