Campus creatures: grackle, friend or fowl?

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Grackles may annoy students with their loud vocalizations, but what they lack in popularity they make up for in number. Now an Austin staple, the species may soon take the helm as city mascot.

Photo Credit: Pedro Luna | Daily Texan Staff

You may hate grackles — the beady-eyed, dark-colored birds you see flocking around campus. The widespread hatred for these birds actually plays a funny part in 1990’s UT history.

UT actually waged war on the overwhelming grackle population. With shotguns in hand and a detest for the vegetation vandalizers, UT facilities staff shot blanks at the birds to scare them off campus — an unsound solution, according to KUT.

Now as survivors, the birds have made Austin their home, and although they may ruffle your feathers, they are an interesting part of the campus environment.

Integrative biology professor Timothy (Tim) Keitt, who teaches Biology of Birds, said that the birds’ loud calls could make them comfortable with people.

“They’re often happy in an urban environment,” he added. “Because of their noisy social nature, they’re not easily startled by urban sounds and having people around.”

Also, grackle populations flourish on campus and in Austin because the infrastructure is suitable for nesting, said biology professor Peter English. He added that our trash is a grackle’s treat.

“We’ve got the perfect climate for grackles,” English said. “We generate a ton of trash … we put in not so tall trees that are perfectly spaced. We feed them more than they can possibly eat, and then we’re mostly nice to them.”

While grackles can fly under the radar at UT for most of the year, Ph.D. student Tracy Burkhard said they’re hard to ignore during their mating season in spring.

“Some people get annoyed or scared by it but basically, the males puff up their tails … and they’re shouting at females to try to attract them,” Burkhard said.

Spring is 4.0 season and it seems that both the students and grackles start exhibiting odd behavior.

“You’ll notice that the male bird is also doing this (calling) to anything that’s black, not just females but anything that could remotely look like a female,” Burkhard said. “I’ve seen them doing this to a trash bag, for instance.”

By the end of mating season, the grackles might look a bit rough around the edges. Students might be able to relate. Between fights with other grackles and feather mites that eat holes into their plumage, the grackles lose a bit of their glamor.

Not to worry, English said that the worn-out feathers fall during molting season, and the grackles soon return to their glossy glory. While grackles can be a bit of a nuisance, Austin seems to have fallen in love with them. From Grackle Week 2018 to grackle poetry, there are plenty of signs pointing to grackles as the new city mascot, and English is one of their biggest fans.

He grew up birding in Austin and traveled to 27 countries as a birding tour guide, and he has a message for students and Austinites who adamantly oppose the birds.

“The reason that grackles are here is because we’re here,” English said. “We created trash heaps and piles of food, and grackles ate it. And then we created weird parking lots and grackles are like ‘Fine, I’ll live there.’ The reason they’re in such numbers here is because of us.”