Sunday, February 10, 2008


I was pulling into the parking lot of a local supermarket in far north Dallas the other day when I noted with disdain a now typical winter scene that included a huge flock of grackles and catbirds sitting in the trees, on phone and power lines, cars and any surface that would afford them an easy ingress and egress. It was like one of the more macabre scenes from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. No car was safe from the defecatory recreation (yea, it seems they sometimes do it just for fun) of these little beasties. What were usually prime parking places under trees and lamp poles are now ignored by customers in favor of more remote and uncovered spaces. When I first arrived back in Dallas I took advantage of an open parking space (eureka!) under a tree and near the entrance of the store only to return to a car peppered with bird poop. Why didn’t anyone warn me? You know what that stuff does to car paint? Guess as the new kind on the block, that was my initiation. I headed for the nearest car wash.

Now, despite the fact that the local landlords were now playing the recording of raptors to include eagle and hawk calls, nothing seems to faze these noisy winged wanderers who are, by now, quite comfortable with us humans. The ultimate symbiotic relationship between bird and Homo Sapiens might just be with these two species. I guess I can’t say symbiotic as we humans really don’t derive any benefit from them (OK, they eat Japanese beetles and grubs) as they cause millions and millions of dollars in agricultural damage every year and other damage recounted in the body of this piece.

As I was getting out of my Endeavor much to my delight I noted a rather large female red-tailed hawk settle into a crowd of these birds alighting atop one of the light poles in the parking lot. As soon as she landed there was a flurry of activity that saw the thousands and thousands of grackles and catbirds in the lot scurrying and flying away in a magnificent roar that I’m sure exceeded 100db. They all didn’t just fly to the next lot either; they got the heck out of there, maybe to the next county. It was a sight to see and the hawk just stayed put slowly looking first left then right before she started preening herself. She had a look of good humor about her and I am convinced that she was laughing. It was quite a scene…. I watched the hawk for another ten minutes until out of boredom she once again rose up and flew away as dusk approached. Those birds didn't return that evening.

I thought for a moment that she was part of some control mechanism as recommended by the good folks over at the Blackland Prairie Raptor Center who have recommended raptors as the answer to the conflagration of birds in Dallas. They have advised setting up nesting boxes for owls and hawks so that our problem can be solved the natural way - bird vs. bird - grackles and catbirds vs. our raptor Friends. Medical City Hospital in Dallas has installed owl and hawk boxes in an effort to scare off the grackles and catbirds. In order to speculate on the ultimate winners all we need do is look at the fantastic job turned in by the peregrine falcons in New York City against their famed rats-with-wings (pigeons).

Flocks of these grackles and catbirds easily number in the thousands and experts like Dr. Ken Steigman late of the Heard Natural Science Museum & Wildlife Sanctuary, in Mckinney Texas and now Director of the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area, says grackle flocks can measure several miles long. Yikes! Aside from their noise they are one of the more insidious pests in our environment today. Humanitarian issues aside, I have seen them literally overwhelm trees, buildings and bridges. Their droppings contain ammonia and uric acid that corrodes stone, metal, masonry and paint finishes and can even spread histoplasmosis, a respiratory disease that can be fatal to man. Before the final word came in on the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis-St. Paul, inspectors had speculated that bird droppings could have corroded the beams. Bottom line: these birds pose a very real problem.

Local pest control companies have been contacted frequently to provide bird control for bridges and overpasses in north Texas. While these companies have apparently put in many bids to control these pests, we have yet to see any aggressive programs implemented. If the municipalities engaged as much bird control as private and commercial property owners, we may not have a problem of the magnitude we have now.

Any sense of urgency should be heightened by the existence of the Avian Flu (H5N1) in other parts of the world and the threat of pandemic. The most recent January 2008 outbreak of bird flu in India's densely populated state of West Bengal (24M) could spiral out of control, according to Indian officials.

While grackles and catbirds are apparently immune to the West Nile Virus which is inexplicably more prevalent in north than south Texas, they remain highly susceptible to H5N1. This somewhat explains why populations of these birds have exploded in the Dallas metropolitan area and offers an even more ominous scenario should a pandemic outbreak occur.

I say let nature take its course and turn our good raptor Friends loose on this scourge. An aggressive predator deterrent would mean the expansion of a greater symbiosis and the opportunity to once again grab a really great parking space…


Ned Buxton

1 comment:

TimeSpaceInfinity said...

Neat blog...Alfred Hitchcock sure is still giving us the heebie-jeebies.
BTW..Ticking time-bombs of "bird flu" lie buried in West Bengal state of India....This is because the villagers have a propensity to digging the buried chicken sites.
my friend writes at
They are, unfortunately, illiterate, and pass deep tubewell bores for water underground.