Sunday, April 18, 2010

Question from the Combox

The question is:  How can I tackle the problem of the Grackle?  
For the uninitiated, Grackles are the bird equivalent of rats.  Say what you will about urban sprawl and habitat destruction, Grackles live where we live and can frequently be seen near and around areas that trees and fast food restaurants, and very little competition from other species.  They are aggressive foragers, aggressive breeders, create both noise pollution and actual pollution (in the form of massive amounts of bird poo), and they will wreck your garden if given half a chance.  Grackle abatement is a serious subject of many city councils as they cost cities tens of thousands of dollars to clean up after them.  They pose a health risk wherever they flock.  Among the parasites and illnesses that call Grackle, home, erm, vector, are Coccidia, West Nile Virus, and encephalitis, to name a few.  

A flock of Grackles is called a plague.  I'm not kidding. Early in the morning and near sunset, thousands of grackles can seen gathering in en masse.  The noise is deafening and they can literally black out the sky when they get going.  

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So what to do?  I don't know.  I don't have Grackle problems.  In researching the answer, I came across several articles that espoused different techniques and different products.  The main tactic seemed to be to let the Grackles no they are not at the top of your local food-chain.  Dogs and cats do not seems to affect them, but then my retriever isn't into hunting trashy birds, just barking at them.  Here are the top recommendations from the experts on the Interweb:
  • limit their food: eliminate bird feeders with trays until they are gone
  • shorten perches on post type bird feeders or invest in thistle seed feeders
  • do not throw seed out on the ground (aka. creating a Grackle free-for-all)
  • change your feed to something that Grackle don't prefer like safflower, black oil sunflower, or hulled sunflower seeds
  • consider a visual deterrent like a faux-Hawk or a giant plastic Owl
  • if you are really desperate call a falconer
Here is the article from the Fort Worth Star Telegram:

City calls for air support in battle against grackles
January 28, 2008
by Anna M. Tinsley

FORT WORTH -- Kujo perched on a tree branch in downtown's Burnett Plaza, warily watching for prey.
No grackles or starlings were in sight.
Instead, a man raised his arm.
Kujo, a 2-year-old Harris's hawk, quickly flew low and fast through the chilly morning air to reach the outstretched arm of Roger Crandall, his handler.
Rewarded with pieces of mouse meat, he knew that next time, his bounty could be bigger.
Kujo and his working mate, Blackjack, could be the newest tools in the city's efforts to drive out grackles -- long known as "downtown's feathered menace."
Recent changes in federal law, prompted by local falconers and officials, allow special permits to be issued so the hawks' handlers can be paid for eradicating "nuisance" birds. A contract between the falconers, who have demonstrated the hawks' work locally for free, and Downtown Fort Worth Inc. is being discussed.
"The damage they do and mess they make are unacceptable to the public," said Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc. "And our job is to make the public comfortable in downtown."
Through the years, the group and the city have spent thousands of dollars using everything from spotlights to grape fog to pyrotechnics to chase grackles away.
"This phase," Taft said, "is now 'No Grackle Left Behind.'"
Bring the prey down
Crandall and Jeff Cattoor -- area falconers and partners in Nighthawk Bird Control -- have brought their hawks downtown before.
Usually they begin late at night, after making sure that at least one of their hawks is hungry. Then they release them in areas that are saturated with grackles.
"They plow into the tree, grab the first grackle or starling ... and bring the prey down," Crandall said.
"The others fly away."
The handlers give the hawks a little bit of the animal they killed -- enough to whet their appetite.
Then they go again, into different trees where grackles watch and often fly away in fear.
Kujo and Blackjack have bells and transmitters attached to them to make it easier to find them after a kill.
Until recently, the work Crandall and Cattoor do with the hawks has been on a volunteer basis, because federal law prevented them from being paid for using predatory birds to hunt other birds.
But officials with Downtown Fort Worth Inc., U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, and Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief went to bat for changing the law and allowing special permits for these falconers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now has new regulations in place.
Cattoor and Crandall recently received a special federal permit -- good for three years -- to allow them to be paid for their bird eradication work.
Already, they've traveled to the Panhandle to help a refinery remove a roost that has settled along the entire operation. And they hope to focus on downtown Fort Worth for much of the rest of this roosting season, which runs through April.
They say they can run grackles out of downtown -- and keep them from coming back.
"Hallelujah," Moncrief said. "I will jump up and click my boots when that happens."
"Our city is so beautiful and has so much to offer ... without the company of grackles or what grackles are known to leave behind," he said.
"Since my first alternative of using a 12-gauge was not acceptable, I'm delighted that Nighthawk will fill the bill."
Problem birds
Grackles -- loud, messy and typically unafraid of people -- have been a problem downtown and throughout the city and Metroplex for years, becoming a public nuisance by squawking and relieving themselves on sidewalks, vehicles and passers-by. The city, Downtown Fort Worth Inc. and local businesses spend time and money cleaning sidewalks and shooing the birds away.
The grackles generally go downtown during the cooler months, seeking safety from predators and an ample supply of food and water. In warmer weather, they head to fields to dine on grains and other crops.
Some say they aren't all that bad. They do eat mice and insects such as crickets and roaches, which can be problems themselves.
But many say the mess they make outweighs any positive points. And while various methods have been used to drive the grackles away through the years, the birds keep coming back.
"I have no problem with this practice, especially for grackles and other nuisance black birds," said Greg Keiran,a local birder and member of the Fort Worth Audubon Society. "Killing cowbirds is even a good thing since they are harmful to the songbirds that they parasitize."Some say the hawk effort won't drive the grackles away.
At least not for long.
"Paying to have a temporary hawk kill a few birds is not a long-term solution," said Gail Morris, president of the Fort Worth Audubon Society.
"I don't think the falconers will have much luck with that approach.
"It would just be a temporary fix."
'100 percent'
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say they have issued four of the special permits -- one to Nighthawk, the others to companies in Texas and California.
In addition to this permit, falconers still need a hunting license from state wildlife agencies, said Nicholas Throckmorton, a spokesman with the federal agency.
"For grackles, it's not so much hunting as it is hazing," Throckmorton said. "Grackles aren't a hunted species, but falconers can now be very useful to make life very uncomfortable for them."
Cattoor said using the hawks to consistently scare grackles could someday leave a grackle-free downtown.
Eventually, the grackles will believe that there's a full-time threat to them downtown and will seek a safer location.
Cattoor said it might take using the hawks downtown for a full grackle season -- generally from late September through March -- to scare the pesky black birds off.
"They eventually will move off. The roosts will relocate," Cattoor said. "With continuous pressure on them, it is 100 percent a solution."

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