In defense of the much-maligned grackle …

Grackles have their good points: They eat bugs and rodents and charm fans with amusing behavior


Highlights

Grackles are part of the web of life and serve as prey for other animals.

Heather Kuhlken of Austin spent a year and a half studying grackles at Rice University.

Kuhlken likes to try to interpret what grackles are saying.

Don’t call them trash birds.

Grackles, it turns out, do more than weigh down power lines, steal tortilla chips off your dinner plate and squawk in really loud voices. The gleaming black birds actually play a beneficial role in our society. (Well, besides cleaning up those food crumbs you dropped on the sidewalk.)

Grackles, which are a native species in Texas, eat insects, for one. And that includes those you might not like crawling on you, such as wasps and spiders, and ones that damage crops, including moths, grasshoppers and beetles.

“I get why people don’t necessarily like them, but I think they’re fascinating,” says Shelia Hargis, a volunteer for Travis Audubon and president of the Texas Ornithological Society. “They do eat insects, so that means fewer insects that are eating plants — or us. There’s also the argument that they’re part of a web of life — they’re part of the system.”

PODCAST: Listen to bird experts and enthusiasts talk about Austin’s fascination with grackles

Actually, grackles are omnivorous. They mainly eat bugs in the summer, seeds in the winter — plus the occasional baby mouse, rat, lizard or assorted critter when the opportunity presents itself.

And pink cookies.

“Pink sugar cookies from Fiesta are their favorite. You can trap a grackle every time if you use those,” says Heather Kuhlken of Austin, founder and director of Families in Nature.

Kuhlken spent a year and a half researching great-tailed grackles while working on a biology degree at Rice University. If you were a student there in the mid-1990s, you may have noticed her — she regularly awakened at 4 a.m. to lie under trees with a giant microphone, recording grackle songs, and took blood from their babies to determine genetic parentage. (She also notes that for two years after she graduated, those grackles remembered her and would divebomb her head any time she walked on campus.)

Grackles, she agrees, have redeeming qualities.

“They get a bad rap because they enjoy crop plants like sorghum, wheat and corn and they get into bird feeders and drive people nuts. But they control insect populations, and a lot of those insects are harmful to plants,” she says. “And they fit into the food chain well — they eat things and things eat them.”

Grackles serve as prey food for other valuable creatures, including foxes and hawks. And their behavior is interesting to watch.

“I like to interpret what they’re talking about,” Kuhlken says.

A lot of that grackle conversation involves trying to attract a partner, trying to fend off another bird competing for the same partner and begging for food. Grackles do something called a “heads up competition” which Kuhlken compares to a lion roaring instead of fighting — they don’t want to expend energy to fight.

MORE GRACKLE WEEK



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