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Crossroads grapples with grackles (w/video)

By Sara Sneath
Jan. 3, 2014 at 9:05 p.m.
Updated Jan. 2, 2014 at 7:03 p.m.

Just after sunset, hundreds of birds are seen silhouetted against the pink sky along the power lines on Mockingbird Lane.

Victoria school district employees tried to get rid of 20,000 grackles in 1992 by firing blank charges into the air, but the birds fled to the Tanglewood subdivision.

And in 1997, rice fields outside Victoria were seeded with bird poison, which killed rural grackles but had little affect on the city population.

Residents have also tried ridding themselves of the birds with noisemakers, nets and poisoned raisins and French fries. American Electric Power still uses fake owls with noise emitters at some of its substations to divert the birds.

Perhaps none of the efforts was as successful at relieving the city of the pesky population as a hail storm in 1984, which killed more than 3,000 grackles when they were pelted by ice as they perched on trees and utility lines.

It took six trucks to haul off the bird carcasses from where they lay across Victoria High School, according to a 1984 Victoria Advocate story.

While their presence in the Crossroads is a nuisance to humans, grackles are a part of the urban food chain, said Brent Ortego, wildlife diversity biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife. The birds eat insects and serve as food for hawks and other predators. The birds' appearance is a sign of the winter months, and as they cope with the cold weather, residents also appear resigned to deal with the annual bird forecast.

Grackles flock to the power lines on North Navarro Street and roost together in trees in front of businesses like H-E-B Plus!, Target and Whataburger every fall.

On Thursday, the birds caused a second power outage at American Bank in three weeks.

Despite the power outages and the "obvious problem" that causes employees to wash their cars, American Bank hasn't taken any efforts to scare away the birds, said Stephanie Medina, American Bank manager.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which sits catty-corner to the bank, also hasn't taken any action to diminish the number of birds, though the company is aware of deterrents such as hawk decoys, said Ned Maniscalco, a spokesman for Enterprise.

American Electric Power insulates its power lines to protect them from birds and other small critters, said Elgin Janssen, AEP community affairs manager. But when the birds are spooked and leave the lines in mass numbers, the lines bounce, which can cause a short circuit, he said.

"We hope that the birds will migrate on soon, which happens sooner or later. While they are around, we try to reduce the amount of outages as much as we can," Janssen said.

A North American Breeding Bird Survey analysis of Texas that counted the birds from 1996 to 2011 indicated that great-tailed grackles have been increasing in Texas at a rate of 2.4 percent each year, Ortego said.

He said grackles are native to Victoria but congregate in town during winter months to form community roosts.

"It provides them safety in numbers," he said. "And probably makes it a little bit warmer during winter nights."

During the summer months, the birds are more spread out as they compete for food for their young, Ortego said. He said outside the city, the birds feed on milo and corn seeds. But inside the city, the birds make their living on bugs stuck in the grilles of vehicles and parking lot handouts, he said.

Though great-tailed grackles are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, there are provisions to control grackles when they are causing economic harm, Ortego said.

Texas Parks and Wildlife's Outdoor Annual states that all grackles "may be controlled without a federal or state depredation permit when found committing or about to commit depredations on ornamental or shade trees, agricultural crops, livestock or wildlife or when concentrated in numbers and in a manner that constitutes a health hazard or other nuisance."

Victoria County Extension Agent Peter McGuill said the birds eat and scratch seeds out of the ground during planting season and are especially harmful to rice crops.

But Ortego said the birds aren't all bad.

"They eat a lot of pest insects and help support animals that eat them, particularly hawks," he said. "They are a part of our natural ecosystem, and they have a role to play in our communities."

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