Grackle on a deck

Omnivorous, adaptive, and noisy! Who wants them?

Just as surely as swallows come back to Capistrano, great-tailed grackles come back to Southwestern University’s campus. Or, maybe, they never leave. The campus suits them: fountains, food, few natural predators, and fine, old trees. As real-life Angry Birds, grackles are hard to ignore; they strut, they screech, they steal, boldly claiming their turf and scaring away gentler avian guests. Once these bullies congregate in roosting trees, there goes the neighborhood, and it smells really bad. Huge flocks, actually called “annoyances,” are spreading ever north and west through twenty-three states across the United States.

Other names include “devil birds” and “unstoppable machines.” Urban areas have gotten creative in fighting grackles, and Texas Agri-Life Extension has drawn up a general battle plan: “The use of frightening devices has proved the most successful method of dispersing roosts. Persistence and proper timing are essential . . . so persons involved in the activity should be in position and ready before birds start to arrive.” A Kroger grocery in Houston tried bird cannons, which scared the neighbors, who called 911, which brought police. San Antonio and Austin employed Texas Bird Services of Arlington, complete with laser-wielding technicians and, occasionally, falconers with hawks. Portales, New Mexico, mobilized six men, thousands of firecrackers, and buckets in trees.

Joe LePage, Director of Physical Plant at Southwestern, first observed grackles on campus about ten years ago. “We have tried to keep them from roosting by using every means imaginable,” he says. “We started by hanging rubber snakes in trees, shiny objects such as CDs, . . . noise makers, you name it, we tried it.” Sometimes, Southwestern’s efforts are especially dramatic. One mild evening in 2013, three workers fanned out around the semi-circular mall. Each was “armed” with a different noise-maker: cymbals, air horn, wooden sticks. Like safari “beaters,” each marched forward, sounding his device, and the sky filled with irritated, scolding birds. The goal: a pristine campus for Dr. Ed Burger’s first official visit as a presidential finalist.

Southwestern now uses a sonic device to repel the grackles, although it’s not as interesting as the three dedicated groundskeepers. Mr. LePage describes it as broadcasting “bird distress calls that frighten and disorient pest birds. [It’s] humane and eco-friendly. If you walk across campus, at times it sounds like a jungle, but this has produced the best results. Fingers crossed!”

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