Starling vs. Grackle vs. Blackbird

How often do you observe the local birds around your area? Did you know that the birds you see around you that are seemingly clones of each other are actually from different species? Our feathery friends come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny hummingbirds to enormous ostriches. However, there are some exceptions that appear to be a copy of each other. An example would be the three different species of birds: the starling, the grackle, and the blackbird.

Red Squirrel vs Gray Squirrel
Red Squirrel vs Gray Squirrel

Each of these species has a lot more similarities than differences, which can confuse many people. Fortunately, with enough observation, you can differentiate which is which by looking at some distinctive features. These features will be explained in later sections.

This article will help you differentiate the three different kinds of birds that seemingly look the same. You can observe the distinct characteristics they have that set them apart from each other. First, we will talk about their similarities and why people confuse the three. Are you ready to identify the impostors among these birds? Without further ado, let us discuss the main topic.

What Are The Birds’ Similarities? 

starling
Starling (Photo credits: The Spruce)

🪶 Coloration

The three birds have similar coloration and plumage with slightly different characteristics. They usually have dark colorations, which should definitely be the case as we are talking about blackbirds here too. From afar, these birds can be quite confusing to differentiate because you won’t be able to see the differences as much. Their color pallet usually ranges from pitch black to brown, while their other patterns can be completely different colors. These differences in their plumage will be talked about in their differences later on. 

🪶 Flocking Behaviour 

All of these three birds usually form flocks in some form during migration, which is generally in winter. Their flocks vary from small flocks to very large flocks, which can also help you identify them. Usually, blackbirds are the ones that usually form super flocks or those with very large amounts of migrating birds on board. Blackbirds are also known to be the least sociable among the three, as they usually have their territories.

However, the problem with this behavior is the fact that all these three birds can migrate together. Basically, if you see a large flock, there is a chance that all three species are within that flock. Flocks can consist of a million traveling birds, but not all of them have to be on the same species to do so. This can definitely cause confusion for anyone who sees this type of flock, as almost every bird looks the same.

🪶 Diet

These three birds have the same diet, which may not be a good thing for a lot of people. These birds are notorious for being pests when it comes to crops as they often like snacking on the hard-earned produce. All of their diets are also omnivorous, which basically means they also feast on insects. This sounds both like a blessing and a curse for farmers, as the birds may either eat pesky insects or their crops.

Our feathery friends, or foe for some, also enjoy snacking on different kinds of seeds and berries. In fact, some people actually keep some of them as pets and offer them these kinds of food mixes. However, people usually only keep starling and, in rare cases, blackbirds, as grackles are not suitable as pets. It highly depends on their legality as pets in a state, but that does not stop many people from feeding them in the wild. 

🪶 General Physical Appearance

From afar, these birds can be seen as the same because of their size and appearance. However, it is worth noting that blackbirds are usually on the smaller end of the spectrum while grackles are on the bigger end. Their wingspan and tail lengths also have slight differences that can be spotted if compared to each other. That being said, trying to look at sizes is not the most effective method as you would need to have them next to each other.

Their beaks, however, may give it all away once you see them near enough. Their beaks vary in shape, and the way they are pointed can help you identify their species. The catch, however, is seeing them fast enough before they fly away and flee the scene.

🪶 All of them are widespread.

These birds are quite common in various areas, which causes people to be confused about their species. Like we previously mentioned, seeing the same-looking bird over and over again can lead you to assume they are all the same. They are so widespread, in fact, that they are sometimes being hunted down because of their peskiness when it comes to farmlands. Various crops are being damaged every time these birds swoop down for a quick feast, whether it be the insects or the crops themselves. 

You will definitely not see these birds on any list of most concerned endangered species. They are, in fact, of least concern due to their overall abundance in several areas. However, it is essential to keep the hunting in check to prevent history from repeating itself. Humans have already hunted many species to the point of extinction in the past.

What Are The Birds’ Differences?

Blackbird (Photo credits: Collins Dictionary)

Distinct Physical Characteristics

The best way to distinguish the three species is by looking at their physical build. To help you with that, read the list below.

🪶 Distinct Coloration

Starling will usually have dark blue or green coloration around their chests with speckles of white. You can think of them as grackles or blackbirds slightly covered in snow. However, their overall coloration has slightly different appearances compared to the other two species.

Grackles have colorful variations that sometimes appear when they come into contact with direct sunlight. They can have shades of blue, green, or purple and are only seen in males as they use this to attract mates. Females have less colorful feathers and are usually colored in dark brown.

Blackbirds, specifical males, live up to their name and have pitch-black feathers. They also have bright yellow beaks that are brighter than the two other species. The females of this species, however, are similar to female grackles in terms of color. Females are dark brown as well but can have light brown pigmentation around their chest feathers.

🪶 Their Sizes

Starlings are basically in the middle when it comes to the three birds’ sizes. They usually range around 12 inches in length, which is smaller than the grackle but larger than the blackbird. However, it is worth remembering that this is only the average size, and it can vary for each individual bird. It also depends on the bird’s age, so this is a not-so-reliable way to identify the bird’s species.

Grackles are the largest of the three, as they can reach lengths of up to 20 inches from beak to tail. However, the average length of these birds can range at around the same length as starling as well. In general, grackles can grow the largest among the three, though, so it’s another case of a case-to-case basis. You also should not compare them to large crow, which can grow to the size of a house cat!

Blackbirds have the smallest size among the three species, ranging at an average of 8 inches in length. However, it’s worth noting that other variations of the blackbird species, depending on the region, can vary in size. So as you can see, you can’t really compare these birds using size alone, especially since measuring them by size is incredibly difficult.

🪶 Beak Shapes

Starlings have long and pointed beaks that are the same size as their heads, if not longer. Their beaks can be pretty narrow and thin when compared to the other two birds’ beaks.

Grackles have a distinct cone-shaped beak that is about the size of their heads. The tip of their beaks will appear seemingly curved, which distinguishes the shape even more. You can imagine their beaks as a starling’s but with a curved shape near the tip.

Blackbirds have a pretty straightforward triangular-shaped beak like a lot of birds. Their beaks are usually shorter than their heads which can be a distinguishing feature. They will have the smallest beak among the three birds, fitting for their smaller body sizes. 

🪶 Taxonomy

✅These birds, however similar they may seem, actually belong to different classifications. Specifically, they belong to different families of birds. 

Starling belongs to the Sturnidae family. This family of birds consists of starling and mynas, which are classified as songbirds.

Grackles belong to the Icteridae family. They are known for being the birds to develop the nesting style of weaving “hanging baskets” as nesting.

Blackbirds belong to the Turdidae. This family of birds is known for being widespread, with its species being found in different parts of the world.

🪶 Unique variations on the way they chirp

✅These three birds have differences in the way they chirp. These will be described per species below:

Starling usually has high-pitched chirps that are somewhat less loud to hear compared to the other two.

Grackles are quite loud, and their chirps can range from low-pitched to high-pitched. They usually become loud when the mating season arrives as they make their mating call. Some described their mating calls as whistles that change in pitch.

Blackbirds are the singers among the three birds, as many people have described their chirping to be pleasant. They can vocalize in harmony and mimic other blackbirds around the area. You shouldn’t be surprised when a bunch of them sing a little chorus in your backyard garden.

Tips On Differentiating The Three

Grackle (Photo credits): All About Birds

🪶 Look at their tails

Starling will have the shortest tails among the three, while the Grackles have the most extended tail. The Grackles’ tails can be as long as their bodies, which also grows as they mature. This means that you can tell the size of their tail at whatever age as the ratio they have to their bodies is static as they grow. Blackbirds have the average tail size, and their tails usually appear to have a slender shape.

🪶 Look For The Unique Body Differences

Blackbirds will appear to be more compact than grackles, which are more lean and slender. The grackle and starling have a similar body size, but starling has a noticeable spotted color pattern. Some of the grackles’ color can change when they come into direct contact with sunlight. This color change can usually be seen around their wings. 

You should also take note of their beaks and their shapes. Grackles will have a large, cone-shaped tail, starling has long and slender ones, while blackbirds have tiny triangular beaks. Spotting their beaks can be your best bet when differentiating the three.

🪶 Female Grackles and Female Blackbirds Can Be Confusing

Since both the female grackles and blackbirds have the same color, it can be tricky to differentiate them. But it is worth noting that you should look at their sizes and beaks to tell the differences. Grackles will be larger than the female blackbirds, and they will have larger beaks with a different shapes. 

It is also convenient that, especially during the mating season, birds of the same species gather together. So once you identify the male, which is easier to differentiate, you can assume the female’s species. 

Bottom Line

As you may have observed, starling will be the easiest to distinguish, thanks to their spots. Meanwhile, the grackles and blackbirds will be trickier if not observed properly. Just be sure to get a close and safe distance in order to take a good look at the birds. The big takeaway here is to look at their tails and beaks, which can usually do the job for you. However, if you still have trouble, you can always surf the internet for more clues and use pictures for reference. 

These birds can be commonly seen in a lot of areas. But however common a thing is, we should try to identify it, especially when we see it very often. Besides, it is quite convenient to be able to identify what unwanted visitors came into your garden and accidentally harmed some plants.