Mention the lowly-but-ubiquitous grackle to an Austinite, and you'll likely elicit a binary, typically love/hate, response. Unlike the city’s other winged mascot, the bat, which is more or less tolerated by some and celebrated by others, the grackles of Austin have been hunted, hated, loved and praised since their migration here more than a century ago.
The first of the flying scourges (as some would see them) darkened Austin’s skies in the late 19th century. Back then, locals considered the birds beneficial, as the predators forestalled the city’s cricket infestation. Others outside the city limits decried the grackle because of the birds' indiscriminate diets – they would eat not only the pesky crickets and cotton bollworms, but also the crops themselves.
This led to the wholesale slaughter of the grackle at the hands of children, who were encouraged to use the iridescent-feathered creatures to further their marksmanship skills.
M.B. Davis of Waco wrote to the Texas Congress of Mothers in 1910 on behalf of the grackle, pleading for Texas mothers to end the spate of grackle murders and cautioning against a plague of crickets and “universal famine” that would follow the grackle’s extinction:
Dear ladies of the Mothers’ clubs, when you see your son with a gun in his hand and a belt of shells around his waist, disarm that boy and teach him that he can find diversion without contributing toward the total annihilation of his own race.
Austin folklorist J. Frank Dobie had a soft spot for the grackle as well, extolling its intelligence and goodwill, among other creatures in a 1947 article entitled “Animals Work Together.”
“When I was a boy on our ranch in Live Oak County, Texas. I and my brothers and older sister rescued a half dozen or so young grackles that had been dislodged from their nests by wind and rain,” Dobie wrote. “[We] placed them in a keg filled with straw, set the keg on the roof of a shed near the trees in which the grackles nested, and watched the adults feed them until they flew away.”
Still, other Austinites abhorred the grackle from its early days of flight.
Roy Bedichek, Dobie’s friend, fellow luminary and amateur ornithologist, described watching the grackle as “a kind of ornithological slumming adventure.”
Compared to the bluebird, which Bedichek wrote “gracefully descends” and then “consume[s] his catch daintily and at leisure,” the grackle sits “at the edge of a stagnant pool gobbling up sick and dying minnows with great relish.”
Not only that, Bedichek maligned the grackle’s parenting ability. To be fair, grackles are known for their promiscuity, but Bedichek seemed to take it personally.
“The grackles are not good husbands,” he wrote. “Often deserting the females before the young are well reared, and drifting away with other husbands who are tired of family life.”
Bedichek’s disdain was echoed years later in a 1962 Statesman letter to the editor written by Mae Sockburger, who lamented the loss of Austin’s mockingbirds at the hand of the “filthy and noisy” grackle.
“If steps are not taken to eradicate this pest he will soon destroy all our song birds and the only bird sounds we will hear in Austin will be his raucous squawk or shrill whistle followed by a machine-gun-like staccato.”
While Sockburger called for a repeal of the Migratory Bird Act and an extermination of the birds, the Statesman qualified the birds’ presence, offering both a welcoming of the grackles’ “mischief” and an explanation as to why the birds were here to stay: Austin’s growth.
“Love him or not, the grackle is here to stay,” reads the 1971 editorial. “And, strangely, man is responsible for the wider range of these birds. Grackles favor the wide open spaces, and the more we clear the brush, the better the big black birds like it.”
Want more on the pre-Columbian history of grackles? Curious about why they always seem to congregate in grocery store parking lots? Check back tomorrow for the next story in our ATXplained series.