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That time UT Austin waged a war on grackles

Hands hold a photo of a group of people in rows holding shotguns.
Mose Buchele
UT Austin's landscaping services manager John Burns holds up a photo of him (back row, second from left) and the team charged with controlling the campus grackles with blank-filled shotguns.

This story was originally published on March 31, 2016.

You know what happens when you leave your car under a tree full of grackles? What your car looks like after a day or two? To hear John Burns tell it, there was a time when the UT Austin campus looked like that.

“It was horrible," Burns says, "and the stench was almost unbearable. 

Burns was the landscape services manager at UT before retiring in 2017. Back in '80s, he says, about 50 hours a week of work was put toward cleaning up after the birds – more than a full-time job – and workers were losing the fight.

A man stands in an office and smiles for the camera. Plaques line the walls and papers are piled on a desk.
Mose Buchele
John Burns was part of the UT facilities team who used shotguns filled with blanks to deter grackles' on-campus roosting.

"The salt levels were actually getting so high that they were killing the grass and the shrubs," he says. "We lost a lot of shrubs.” 

He says workers tried all kinds of tricks – even rubber snakes, which they planted in trees to scare the birds away.

"We tried a big balloon called a bird's eye, and it had a big eye," he says. "The size of a person's head."

They’d float those around the trees to scare the birds, but they did nothing. Fake owls – nothing.

They even tried more natural routes – pruning the trees way back to discourage roosting. 

"That was not good for the trees," Burns says. "So, we did that not but a few times.”

They played sounds of distressed grackle calls – nothing. 

"We tried one product. I think it was called 'sticky foot,'" Burns says. "You’d spray the tree, and it’d make it sticky, and that worked, to some degree. But, it’d also make everything underneath the tree sticky. So, that was not ... a good thing for us.”

A disheveled glossy black bird on some dirt.
Credit Mose Buchele
Killing grackles is an ineffective "control" technique (and it's also illegal). It's best to dissuade them from roosting in certain areas.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. So, locked and loaded, Burns and the UT Facilities staff took matters into their own hands. He still has a file on it in his office.

The years was 1990, Jon Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory” was burning up the charts, and the UT landscaping crew put in an order for 15 shotguns. 

Burns still has a picture of the group of men posing, looking pretty tough.

"We’re all proud that we got our shotguns in hand. We also have a picture of our equipment we always wore – a vest to let people know that we were out there for a reason, not just out there with a shotgun," he laughs. 

They divided the campus into 15 sections. The guns were loaded with blanks, called shell crackers. Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, it’s illegal to kill grackles. 

"When we would fire the gun, it’s just like a little 'ping,' and you’d shoot up above the tree and then that louder part is way above the tree," Burns recalls. "So, each man would be posted to his section of campus. As the birds started coming in, we’d shoot, and the shell would go above the trees and explode.” 

Then, the birds would fly to another part of campus, where another guy with a gun was waiting. 

"So, it was like back and forth and back and forth," Burns says. "And, as the birds would go from one place to another, we’d shoot and, as the birds would fly in, we’d shoot. It was like, if you weren’t shooting, you were hearing someone else shoot."

"It was a pretty amazing sound to be in the middle of the city, in the middle of the university, and you’re hearing these explosion all over,” he adds.

Daily Texan cartoon
Courtesy of John Burns
The grackle shoots were parodied in this Daily Texan comic strip from 1990.

Of course, there were complications.

UT Police were supposed to notify the Austin Police Department when the shots were planned, but sometimes signals got crossed. Burns says some officers were more understanding than others. Some members of the crew had guns pulled on them by police "several times." 

Then, there were the students.

"We’d try to warn the ones that were near that we were getting ready to do it. But there was always one or two that they’d either hit the ground or take off running," Burns says. "So, we would scare students as well.”

For members of UT’s grackle control crew, the important thing was that it worked. They trained the grackles to stay away from campus. 

"The first week we used the shotguns, we realized we were going to have a chance," Burns says.

After a few years, the crew had to take out their guns less and less often. In the '90s, Burns says, there were more complaints about the guns, but he thinks that’s because the new students didn’t know how bad the thing had been before.  

Mose Buchele
Burns' plaque for campus grackle abatement, the Flying Grackle Award.

"It's really amazing how well it has worked," he says. "I don’t know what we would do at this point if they came back in as hard as they were since we don’t have the gun option anymore.”

Yes, times have changed. With terrorism and mass shootings always in the news, the university’s not using shotguns to control birds anymore. 

Burns says the guns have been sold, but he's held on to a few things from the experience: the file on the "Grackle War," a plaque awarded to him by UT for his service and an abiding hatred for grackles. 

“To this day, if there’s some up in a tree, I’ll clap real hard, which will scare them," he jokes. "It usually hurts my hands, but I’ll still clap. I like to see 'em fly. I've seen the results of them being in an area, and it’s not pretty." 

These days there's grackle graffiti, grackle T-shirts, even a bar named "The Grackle." Some people think of the birds as equals to Austin's beloved bridge bats.

But Burns isn't buying it.

"I don’t think anything's ever going to change my opinion of grackles," he laughs.

This is part two of our two-part ATXplained story on grackles. Find part one here.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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