Other kind of White out

For a few of my many, many years as a student at UT, I owned a car. There were certain areas on campus where parking was hazardous: you might come back to your car, and it would be gracklized. Eeeew.

And later, when I biked everywhere, there was areas where ones brakes might not work well, because of slick sidewalks. Blech.

WSJ.com - To Scare Off Grackles, Texans Pull Out Guns And Strobe Lights:
As dusk fell here one evening recently, an armed team spread out over the corporate campus of RadioShack Corp. and waited.

Suddenly, high above the downtown skyscrapers, the electric-blue evening sky darkened with a huge swirl of black dots. Soon, a screeching cloud of birds descended, settling on the trees around the building.

One of the armed men pointed his pistol and fired, sending a special noise-making cartridge into the trees, where it exploded with a loud boom. Then the rest of the team opened fire. For the next 45 minutes, this normally quiet place sounded like a war zone, echoing with explosions and screaming missiles as the birds boiled back into the sky in a graceful, fleeing mass.

It's grackle time in Texas. Millions of the fiendish-looking birds with yellow eyes descend on cities throughout Texas every evening at dusk like a scene from the Alfred Hitchcock horror movie "The Birds." They squawk and screech and coat sidewalks and parking lots with their copious droppings. The mess repulses tourists, ruins paint on cars and creates a health hazard, city officials say.

Cities and businesses spend tens of thousands of dollars each year cleaning up -- and trying to get rid of the pests. But the aggressive birds consistently outwit man's cleverest efforts to scare them away.

"They're ugly, but they're smart," says Lincoln St. George, who for 10 years has fought the grackle wars for the city of San Antonio. Grackles have proved unmoved by rubber snakes and plastic owls, recorded bird distress calls, brightly colored balloons, and an assortment of noise and light-makers. One year, Mr. St. George tried suspending a strobe light in the trees, but the grackles "sat there and had a party," he says.

The grackle epidemic peaks this time of year as common grackles migrate from the northern regions of the U.S. and Canada to the state's warmer climate. They join an already huge population of native great-tailed grackles, a large, noisy bird with a 25-inch wingspan, iridescent purplish-black plumage and a V-shaped rudder of a tail. After feeding all day in rural pastures and fields, the grackles gather by the thousand in colonies and head for their favorite roosting spots: cities.

Grackles love urban life. It's warmer among buildings, and there are few predators to bother them while they snooze. Litter and Dumpsters provide plenty of snacks. The flocking nature of grackles -- and their migratory patterns -- put Texas in the hot spot
...But many Texas cities choose to tackle the grackles on their own. In San Antonio, fearless grackles will hop onto outdoor tables at restaurants along the city's famed River Walk to snatch food off plates and steal sugar packets. "They actually prefer Sweet 'N Low," says Richard Hoffman, a waiter at Dick's Last Resort.

Mr. Hoffman recalls one little boy who fed a French fry to a grackle, then watched in horror as the bird choked to death. "It was flapping around on the ground, eyes bulging, with this French fry sticking out of its beak, and then it just fell over and died," says Mr. Hoffman.

San Antonio first tried scaring away its roosting grackles by dropping firecrackers into galvanized metal trash cans placed under the trees, says Mr. St. George, superintendent of river operations. But the birds just moved to the next tree, like leafs being blown from yard to yard. A falconer's bird of prey quickly cleared the area, but the falconer charged $4,000 a month, and that was too expensive.

Then the city began using noise-making "cracker shells" fired from shotguns. Mr. St. George deployed shotgun-wielding crews to different parts of the city to chase grackles from tree to tree with the booming blasts of the gun. "It's like rounding up cattle," he says.

Unfortunately, the grackles were chased from downtown to a day-care center where they quickly coated the playground an inch deep in droppings. "It was just disgusting. They couldn't let the kids go out and play," says Mr. St. George, who then used his guns to clear the day-care center, too.

Fort Worth -- which spends up to $60,000 a year dispatching crews to "power wash" its downtown sidewalks -- also favors the gun approach. Last year, city workers began training employees of downtown businesses to use pistols with cracker shells to drive off the birds.

Now, city park officials are asking the city council to approve a much more ambitious plan. The goal: to train a citywide corps of residents and business owners who would fire coordinated blasts from shotguns to drive the birds beyond city limits.

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on January 19, 2005 8:45 AM.

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