Grackle attack: The people behind the scenes keeping the streets clean

Grackles are noisy, bold, and sometimes aggressive. There is a group working to keep them from leaving their mark all over downtown Austin.

It's almost impossible to drive around the Austin area without hearing the piercing cries from the bold, aggressive birds known as grackles. What you probably don't know is it could be even worse if not for some unsung heroes directing away these black-feathered birds before you even wake up.

Migratory birds typically fly south for the winter and north when it gets warmer. These birds have consistent patterns and routes to their trips, and Austin is right in the middle of these flights. This is a key reason the city will have certain periods of times with a lot of birds, including the grackle.

In 2008, the Downtown Austin Alliance noticed there was a growing issue related to migratory birds in the public improvement district. Matt Macioge is the operations director for the Downtown Austin Alliance, and said this influx of birds was taking a toll on the city's cleaning team.

"We wash 500,000 square feet of block face every month," Macioge said. "You could actually see plastered areas with bird droppings."

What the alliance decided to do was contract directly with Texas Bird Services, who work on migratory bird abatement all around the state.

"Here in Austin, they'll typically start about 5:30 before the birds start stirring around," said Texas Bird Services Regional Manager Arrington Davis. "During times like this, they're kind of like firemen. When they see birds in certain areas, they go respond to them and move them out."

Bird technicians wake up well before much of the public to do their work. The way they scare the birds away might be the most interesting part of this partnership. Whenever one of these workers sees a flock of birds in an area they are trying to keep them away from, they will use wood blocks -- or "slapsticks" as they call them -- to wake up the birds. Technician Steve Lavendusky said it's the easiest way to get the birds' attention.

"This gets them awake before we use our lasers," he said.

Those lasers Lavendusky is referring to are shone those into the trees in a constant motion so it doesn't shine in the birds eyes. The technicians also have to keep an eye out for any buildings behind the trees, cars on the road or planes in the sky.

"I train the technicians myself," Davis said. "The only thing we're doing is just passing them right along our city while keeping them in their pattern. We have created a bubble around downtown."

Grackles are also very territorial, so having large groups of these birds in trees where there is a lot of foot traffic could cause them to swoop down and attack people on the sidewalks. Earlier this year, the University of Texas even put up flyers warning students of "aggressive birds nesting in this area."

"People could get attacked on the streets if they're near any nests or babies," Davis said.

From a bird perspective, though, this team is trying to keep them out of the downtown area for their own well being.

"If they're inside the city, they're drinking water off the streets with antifreeze in it and oil in it," Davis said. "They're eating gum and pizza on the streets."

The biggest reason this team is working to move the birds outside this bubble goes back to what Macioge was discussing in relation to the need to clean the streets. If too many birds pack into the trees downtown, that leads to bird droppings all on and around the main streets.

"When we first started back in 2008, the entire city was basically blanketed with birds," Davis said. "I couldn't get out of my unit of my truck without getting a lot of droppings all over me and the truck as well."

Nine years later, the Texas Bird Services team has seen a drastic change in these birds and where they like to roost. While many still come into the trees and require some wood-clapping and laser-pointing, the streets are much cleaner today.

"To be walking around, chasing birds and people watching, I just thought this would be great," Lavendusky said. "It's a job I can say I enjoy doing."

TAP OR CLICK HERE to learn more about Texas Bird Services.

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