Jonathan Meiburg lived in Austin for about 12 or 13 years — he can’t quite remember for sure. The singer, songwriter and bandleader spent that time running Shearwater, an outfit named after a category of seabirds, and being a co-founder of Okkervil River.
He also spent that time being extremely interested in the great-tailed grackle.
“Just seeing them around Austin never got old to me,” Meiburg says. “All their little weird behaviors, like seeing each of them trying to raise their head higher than the next one.”
Meiburg is a man who observes things. About 20 years ago, after graduating from the University of the South with a bachelor’s degree in English, Meiburg received a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to study daily life in remote human communities. He hung out in the Falkland Islands, Tierra del Fuego, the Aboriginal settlement of Kowanyama in Australia, the Chatham Islands of New Zealand and the Inuit settlement of Kimmirut in Baffin Island, Canada.
After that, he attended the University of Texas and picked up a master’s degree in geography with a thesis titled “The Biogeography of Striated Caracaras (Phalcoboenus australis).”
Meiburg doesn’t live in Austin anymore, but even when he is on the road (literally — we spoke while he was in a moving tour van), he is more than happy to chat about what really should be the official bird of Austin.
He notes that these birds suffer from a problem that is common to ornithology: “There are so many of them that people don’t find them all that fascinating, and there aren’t a lot of behavioral studies on them. But I love them.”
The great-tailed grackles self-introduced from South America, Meiburg says, “but what’s really interesting is that they spread so fast over so much of the country.”
Few birds have adapted so vigorously and completely to urban life. “The city just worked out really well for them,” Meiburg says. “These guys are urban birds. Once you get out of the city and into the Hill Country, you stop seeing them.”
Then again, cities are where the food is. “They have this really opportunistic, problem-solving, scavenging, omnivorous thing to them,” Meiburg says.
Meiburg found this out firsthand once while eating at Curra’s. “The waiter said that not only could the restaurant not keep sugar on the outdoor tables, they couldn’t keep Sweet’N Low — grackles would steal them. I had to test that one out. I put out a packet of sugar and one of the Sweet’N Low. Sure enough, within 30 seconds, a bird grabbed the pink one.”
But the grackles also represent, to Meiburg, something fundamental about the relationship between nature and urban environments.
“Wildlife has learned to either stay far away or get really close to humans,” Meiburg says. “Look at deer in Northwest Austin. They are everywhere, near houses, hanging out on laws, right next to us. Lots of animals have figured this out, and until we go away, it’s a pretty safe bet wild animals will learn to live off of large accumulations of human beings. Grackles are just one of the most visible species who have learned how to be our neighbors.”
So, remember: When a grackle dive-bombs your plate to steal a fry, it’s just being neighborly.