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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

An Annoyance of
Grackles

by Clay Coppedge
If there's a Texas bird that stirs more debate than the mockingbird it's got to be the grackle, or Quiscalus mexicanus. Some Texans of a certain bent believe the grackle should replace the mockingbird as the state bird of Texas. Others would rather see the grackle become an endangered species or, better yet, extinct.
TX - Grackles on wire
Photo by John Troesser , 2007
The grackle haters start with the name - grackle - which rhymes with cackle. The grackle doesn't cackle but it's not a crooner like the mockingbird. According to Mexican legend, the grackle's song consists of seven notes representing the Seven Passions of Life: Love, Hate, Fear, Courage, Joy, Sadness and Anger. Among Texans, Hate and Anger appear to be leading the pack. Grackles have been attacked by cannons in Houston, explosives in New Mexico and lasers in Austin. USA Today has labeled it "the devil bird."

Most of the grackle hate comes from the birds' habit of roosting in large groups called "annoyances" or "plagues" (they're really called that) and then singing - or squawking - and pooping to beat the band. They show a strong preference for large grocery store parking lots with trees. Warning: Do not stand under those trees at dusk.

But not everybody hates grackles. Texas Monthly writer John Nova Lomax for one believes the state bird of Texas should be unique, not something we share with the likes of Arkansas, Mississippi, Florida, and Tennessee.

"What's more Texas than a hearty symphony of grackle racket?" he asks in his ode to the grackle. "These birds can sound like everything from a squeaky door hinge to explosions of static from a radio left on at high volume to laughing whistles to monkey-like rattles. On warm spring mornings, their orchestrated cacophony just sounds like home. In Texas, they put the 'jungle' in urban jungle."

The great-tailed grackle (one of three species that take wing in Texas) has flocked to Texas cities in numbers paralleled only by people from other states doing the same thing. Native and non-native Texans alike accuse the grackle of being an interloper of the worst kind - an invasive species. Not so. They're native to the U.S., but they have become more native - or at least more widespread - than they used to be.
TX - Grackles on puddle
Photo by John Troesser , 2007
The story goes that an Aztec emperor named Ahuitzotl, a relative of Montezuma, took his armies to the lowlands east of Mexico City in the 1400s, conquered the people there and brought back slaves and some big black birds with long, black iridescent feathers. Grackles. The Aztecs loved feathers, and these feathers were black, like those of the blackbird, but splashed with ocean blues and royal purples. The Aztecs actually bred grackles, and woe be unto those who ruffled even a single one of those beautiful feathers. Ornithologists point to this as possibly the first time humans intentionally relocated wild animals in the new word while also showing us that grackles have been gathering in cities for more than 500 years.

Over the intervening centuries and especially in the last decades, the grackles have made serious inroads into Texas. According to J.K. Strecker's pioneering work on Texas birds, The Birds of Texas, grackles were limited to South Texas in 1912. H.C. Oberholser's 1974 Bird Life of Texas has them showing up in Fort Worth in 1944 and Dallas three years later.

Grackles have now migrated to 22 other states, gathering in annoyances as far north as Montana and as far west as Washington. According to bird biologist Alan Clark, grackles are increasing their range at about four percent a year even as overall populations decline.

"They're an unstoppable machine," Clark told USA Today in 2013. "They're really hard to scare, they're hard to kill and they're in such huge groups that even poison isn't particularly effective."

Poison? Isn't it illegal to kill grackles or any other bird under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act? Not really. The United States Department of Agriculture makes an exception for grackles that allows for them to be harassed and removed without permits. Yes, removed.

Mike Bodenchuck, director of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wildlife Services in San Antonio says that a standing order allows people to get rid of grackles if they're harming crops, damaging plants, affecting human health and safety or if they're simply making a nuisance of themselves.

"If you've got a tree outside your bedroom window and they're keeping you awake, you can go out and kill them if it's okay in your area," Bodenchuk told USA Today. "The problem is that killing them doesn't do much. If you kill 10, 10 more will show up."

Killing grackles would be more problematic for loyal and discerning Texans if they happened to be the state bird. We don't kill mockingbirds, not only because To Kill a Mockingbird tells us it's a sin to do so but because it's illegal and because shooting a mockingbird would just be wrong.

Though grackles aren't celebrated in song and literature to the same extent as the mockingbird they have their literary backers. William Penn Warren wrote a poem called "Grackles Go" as an observation of their migratory nature, not as a plea.

Still, the grackle isn't going to replace the mockingbird as the state bird of Texas any time soon. With people from other parts of the country expanding their range in Texas at about the same four percent rate as the grackles, and given these people's reaction to the grackles, the mockingbird's official status is probably safe for the foreseeable future.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" November 16, 2018 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • The Original Texas Songster 11-2-18
  • The Little Axe That Could 10-19-18
  • The Cowboy Who Became the Father of British Aviation 10-4-18
  • Wrong Way Corrigan 9-26-18
  • The First Rodeo 9-2-18

    See more »

  • Related Topics:
    Birds in Texas
    Columns
    Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • The Original Texas Songster 11-2-18
  • The Little Axe That Could 10-19-18
  • The Cowboy Who Became the Father of British Aviation 10-4-18
  • Wrong Way Corrigan 9-26-18
  • The First Rodeo 9-2-18

    See more »


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