Grackles are scrappy, determined birds with a showy mating ritual and an ability to thrive in Texas heat. For better or worse, that describes a lot of Austinites, too. “Scrappy” also could describe many birders, who find contentment with whatever nature provides.
Birding, formerly called bird-watching, differs from ornithology because it offers an experiential pursuit, not a scientific one. Rather than spend years studying the taxonomy of birds, birders embark on a quest for the experiences and knowledge that come from interacting with nature. At the end of the day, being a good birder means showing up and paying attention and having the ability to make peace with whatever the day holds.
For Travis Audubon Society member Judith Bailey, that sometimes means watching grackles at a restaurant or her own backyard and thinking about how they differ from other birds.
“We live with these birds all the time. They are everywhere,” she said in April at this year’s Fusebox Festival, which featured a performance at Patterson Park with dancers and musicians performing alongside the grackles themselves, the unknowing stars of the show. Bailey was one of a handful of Travis Audubon volunteers who guided small groups of attendees at the performance.
As she walked the small group around the park to watch various human and bird performances, Bailey explained that the yellow-crowned night heron, not the grackle, was her “spark bird,” the bird that lights up a person’s curiosity about the entire world of birding.
Bailey said that as her interest in birds grew, she started taking birding classes and going on birding trips to learn how to distinguish similar species by their feathers, behavior or, most importantly, their song.
“The listening part is what we’re going to do a lot,” she told the crowd gathered under the picnic pavilion at Patterson Park for the Fusebox event. “The master birders, they don’t even pull up the binoculars to look at them. They only listen.”
One of those birders who can spot by sound is Peter English, a biology professor at the University of Texas who first fell in love with birds as a young boy growing up in Austin. By the time he was a young adult, he was leading the first birding camps with his mentor, Victor Emanuel.
English went on to lead birding tours for 25 years throughout Central and South America, but he has settled back in Austin, where he’s raising a young family and teaching yet another generation of naturalists in his biology classes.
Birders share the pursuit of spotting or hearing as many different kinds of birds as possible in as many different kinds of places. Many birders keep track in a birding log or notebook that is called a Life List. Emanuel’s Life List has some 5,000 birds in it.
Even if they keep a meticulous bird count, English said that birders share a common value: an intrinsic reward system where there are no dues and no medals. “It’s all free and it’s all volunteer. It’s all internal.”
“Every day, you sit down at the end of the day and record what you saw or heard,” he said. “Some of the birders are about the number, some want to go through the book and relive the trip by looking at a bunch of checkmarks.”
Even in the attempt to see as many birds as possible in a lifetime, birders seem to be sympathetic observers who embrace that many aspects of nature — and life — are unknowable.
Emanuel, for example, admits to not knowing the least about grackle nests, even though he sees hundreds of them every day.
“Birding changes people’s lives because it connects them to nature,” Emanuel said. “(Ralph Waldo) Emerson said that in the woods is eternal youth. Walking in the woods, you’re not sitting on your couch, but it also preserves in you a childlike sense of wonder. If something difficult happened in your life, a death, a divorce, being out in nature is the most healing thing.”
THOUGHTS ON GRACKLES
“People call them nuisance birds, but when you start watching them, when you watch them walk, they run and hop,” Travis Audubon Society member Judith Bailey said of grackles during April’s Fusebox Festival. “Most birds fly in an undulating pattern, but grackles fly in a straight line and spend a lot of time on the ground.”
Bailey said that in almost every species of the bird world, females do most of the work. The same is true of grackles. “She builds the nest, she broods the eggs, she feeds the babies, and the daddy is out looking for french fries,” she said.
The courtship dance between the male and female grackles — which was re-created by two human dancers equipped with grackle calls and costumes during Fusebox — is unmistakable. “There are so many female grackles that the males probably don’t even need to do their dance anymore,” Bailey said.
“Of the two blackbird families, grackles are the smartest. They can do chores,” she said. “When you watch them for a long time, you can see how they are thinking, figuring things out.”
“They are like velociraptors,” one man in the crowd commented. “Well, they are dinosaurs,” Bailey said.