Have Grackles Hatched A Plan To Destroy Us? No, They're Just Protecting Their Hatchlings

Jun 21, 2017

Signs went up recently near KUT's studios on the UT campus, warning people about aggressive birds. After two members of the newsroom got dive-bombed by grackles, we started wondering what it was all about.

Turns out, it pays to keep an eye on the trees this time of year.

“I’ve had them dive at me many times,” says UT Landscaping Manager John Burns. “I’ve never had one actually hit me.”

Burns is referring to mockingbirds, many of which are hatching right now. But he knows all about grackles, too. He was part of the successful effort to rid UT of swarms of grackles in the '90s that has become the stuff of campus legend. At that time, UT staff resorted to firing explosive (nonlethal) shotgun rounds at the birds, to convince them to roost away from the 40 Acres.  

UT Austin's landscaping services manager John Burns holds up a photo of him (back row, second from left) and the team charged with controlling the campus grackles with blank-filled shotguns.
Credit Mose Buchele / KUT

He says the reason for aggressive birds, be they grackles or mockingbirds, probably has to do with hatching season.

“If they have a nest in the area, they’re going to protect that nest and they’re going to dive at you,” he says.

Birds are not the only animals that keep life exciting on campus. Among other things, there are bats in the summer, cricket swarms in the fall and plenty of squirrels.

“[Squirrels] damage our trees very badly,” Burns says. “They’ll chew on the bark of the trees and they’ll actually kill branches."

Burns maintains a dislike of grackles, carried over from his time chasing them from campus. But he concedes the birds that remain do serve as valuable allies when it comes to cricket swarms. After mating, the crickets have a habit of dying in large groups, leaving a putrid smell

“The resident grackles eat these crickets,” he says. “So they’re somewhat beneficial.” 

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