Grackles – What You Need to Know

Grackles are always present in Austin. But during certain times of the year – such as fall – they’re really present. They aren’t exclusive to Austin, of course, but when you consider the quantity and volume of these birds, you might suspect that they are.

Austin Grackles Unlike Austin’s beloved migratory Mexican Free-Tail Bats, which attract throngs of visitors and locals alike to view their nightly flight en masse from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge, our grackles only seem to attract . . . well, more grackles.

So why give them their own page? No, they’re not a true Austin attraction. But I feel they’ve earned inclusion nonetheless. They definitely command a certain level of respect or at least notice.

If you’ve ever been around them at dusk in the fall in some area of Austin where there are plenty of trees, telephone wires, and/or good rooftop ledges, you will likely be forced to take notice. Whatever you want to call it–congregating, flocking, reenacting scenes from Alfred Hitchcock–when the grackles really get going, it’s impossible to miss.

These creatures will never be described as majestic. In fact, if you observe these birds for any length of time, you’ll understand why the archetypal Trickster figure in many Native American myths so often takes the form of crows or blackbirds.

What Austinite hasn’t had at least one unpleasant encounter with the infamous grackle?

Even if they were better-behaved birds, their sheer number would still lead to the occasional “accident.” But these are intelligent creatures and, of course, they know exactly what they’re doing when they target your head or your shoulder or your entree or your beverage of choice.

If you’re going to dine or drink in any of Austin’s fine patio areas, you should take as much care selecting your seat as if you were Wild Bill Hickok sitting down to play a hand or two of poker in the Dakota territory.

Cities around Texas spend thousands of dollars on “grackle abatement programs” that include a series of ideas from falconers to canons to no end. It’s illegal to kill Grackles, and all we can do is wave them over the border.

Never plant yourself under a wire or an exposed branch. Never park beneath a tree in any parking lot in Austin. Never assume that good karma or a pure heart will protect you from being shat upon from above.

Back in 2007, they even made national news when a large number of them were mysteriously discovered dead downtown one morning. I’ve never met a “pro-grackle” person, but here’s a quote from the Time story:

While bird lovers admire grackles for their iridescent feathers and canny ability to mimic human voices, for others they’re a nuisance — dirty, noisy and a plague that has prompted cities and institutions across the country to declare war on the black clouds that roost in trees throughout the southern U.S. So when the black birds turned up dead, suspicions about a possible culprit exposed divisions that run deep across the country between the pro- and anti-grackle camps.

Grackle Encounters & Comment

Grackle Savior

Today I saved a Grackle. We have a sunroom at the back of the house that has big windows all around. Occasionally I hear a loud bump, which is most often a bird hitting the window.

I always go out to look under the windows to see if there are any on the ground, but they’re usually just stunned and recover and fly away. But this morning I went out to find a Grackle on its back. It was breathing heavily so I knew it was alive. I talked in gentle friendly tones as I do with all animals (when they are behaving) as I watched it.

It seemed unable to move. I let it lie there for some time, then I scooped it over on its feet to put it upright. I didn’t see any obvious wing injury. I backed off to see if it would fly away or move. It was still panting and likely stunned.

So I gently scooped it up and set it down, upright, in some rocks in the dry birdbath by the feeders. And left it to allow it to recover. Half an hour later on this bright sunny day, I went to the window to see if the patient was still in the recovery room. Well, it had checked out of the hospital and flown away.

Living with Grackles

I was living in F K ALLEN, a dormitory, when I attended the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1990s. It was a very big dorm and had its own zip code.

An indigenous population of grackles was living right next door to F K ALLEN. Grackles are very large black or dark purple bird. They’re smaller than hawks but larger than crows. They have sharp pointing beaks and tail feathers that are as long as the rest of their body. They wander throughout the city and gather into large flocks.

It seems that the entire population of grackles in Austin lived in nests in spruce trees near ALLEN dorm. Each night these birds use to squawk and chatter in a collective noise so loud that it was very difficult to even have a conversation.

But in the morning they would be gone, flying away to unknown parts.

It was a part of campus so every day at least twice the groundskeeper had to power wash the ground underneath those trees. There was usually a pungent and unpleasant smell in the air, too.

So many tricks and plans were undertaken but none of the plans did much to rid the campus of this feathered infestation.

One plan was that, before the arrival of the birds in the evening volunteers with shotguns lined up in V-shaped formation. The shotguns were fired into the air as the grackles arrived. The idea was that birds would be startled and fly away towards the open end of V.

This routine went on very long but the birds kept coming back – they literally shit all over the plans.

When I left the University of Texas in 1993, the grackles, almost mocking in their victory, were still there.

About 10 years later I returned to Austin for a visit. One of my objectives was to visit the place of my higher education.

Everything had changed. Where I used to go to sleep there was an auditorium and there were benches across the street and flower boxes which were nicely groomed but there was not a sound, sight, or scent of a grackle.

It was a total mystery for me. Did they poison them? Did they fly away to greener pastures? So the people of ALLEN finally got rid of the grackles.

After some time, though, I saw densely packed trees were there next to the hotel. I smelled that unmistakable smell again and saw their all-too-fresh scars of war on the ground. It was true – at sunset, I was once again back home among the grackles, my archenemies.

Finally, the University of Texas had bestowed another gift to Austin. I’m sure that some city workers thanks them in their own special way – every sunrise and sunset.

Grackle Poetic Justice

I swear this is true. About ten years ago I was downtown and walking through Republic Square Park. I had my hands in my pockets and I remember I had a little change in my pocket, too. Something like 3 or 4 quarters.

A young and very thin homeless guy approached me and asked if I could spare a buck or two. I forget exactly how I said it, but I basically told him that I didn’t have any money on me. But as I tell him this, I literally have my fingers wrapped around the 3 or 4 coins in my pocket.

Then he goes his way and I keep going my way. I get maybe five or ten feet when all of a sudden I feel something wet splatting in my hair. It wasn’t raining. It was poetic justice from a lone grackle flying overhead.

Pigeons Are Worse Than Grackles

I’ve had a number of memorable bird encounters, although nothing specifically involving grackles.

I live in a small town in New York State. Birds have become quite against my liking in many ways. I guess, to begin with, more than three times, and all within a one-month period, while walking to work, I had a pigeon poop on me!

I can’t believe grackles behave any worse than pigeons. These were absolutely horrifying incidents for me, as I was almost to work each time. Imagine showing up with bird poop on your jacket and clothes. Not once, but three times!

Not a pretty sight, but it did make a lot of people laugh! On another occasion, I was out one morning (I had the day off) walking to a local Dunkin Donuts to pick up a copy of USA Today.

I was off in Never Never Land, not paying any attention whatsoever when I instinctively looked up and came to a dead stop. A crow flew by less than an inch from my face. If I had not stopped at that exact moment, the crow would have smacked right into my face!

Now, I must admit, I am normally really good in a crisis, and not prone to panic attacks at all, but this one had me a little shaken up. Needless to say, when I went on vacation a while later with some friends, I didn’t go into this big open space where a hundred different types of birds were flying all around!

I stayed in the enclosed bat cave and made my friends come meet me when they were done.

What’s YOUR Most Memorable Grackle Encounter?

What’s the worst thing a grackle has ever done to you, a loved one, your car, or your dinner or drink you were trying to enjoy while you were minding your own business out on the patio of your favorite eating or drinking establishment?

Help compile evidence against these rude, winged menaces by sharing your most memorable grackle story. Whether it happened in Austin or somewhere else, we want to hear about it.

Or are you a defender of grackles? Here’s your chance to stick up for these squawkers and explain why you think the creatures are unfairly maligned.

 

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