Tag Archives: common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)

Pier pressure

A male common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) standing on a pier (2009_05_04_018308)

Despite my better intentions, I’ve been on a forced sabbatical from the web.  This has generated not too small a bit of peer pressure as I’ve been remiss in visiting my online friends, let alone posting anything here.  Poor xenogere began to feel like a kennel with all the dogs gone.

No, emptier even than that.

But whatever impetus I felt to be online was self-imposed at best.  Life moves forward of its own volition with nary a thought for whatever obligations our imagination cooks up for us.

That truth notwithstanding, however, I do feel bad for not being out and about on the web of late.  I’ll try to do better.

Meanwhile, have some photos of “trash birds” perched on my favorite pier at White Rock Lake, the one in Sunset Bay.  Now this is real pier pressure.  And you can obviously see how trashy these bird species really are.

A rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia) standing on a pier (2008_12_27_003613)

— — — — — — — — — —


  1. My apologies to anyone who’s tried to comment recently, most especially to several of you who tried to comment on yesterday’s entry.  Comments were broken due to a fat-fingered mistake I made in the code.  Oops.
  2. I really do have a bur under my saddle about the phrase “trash bird,” most especially when it’s used by those of stature within the naturalist community.  And while I desperately want to beat the drum of that rant, it will have to wait until I have the wherewithal to tackle it.  Just be warned that it’s coming.


  1. Male common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)
  2. Rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia)

[Update] There is an ongoing issue with commenting.  The problem stems from a recent security upgrade on the server and impacts anyone who has commented recently enough to have old cookies (anyone who has never commented before or whose cookies have expired will have no problem submitting a comment).  There are two ways to resolve the issue: (1) The quickest is to delete all cookies for this site; you’ll then create new cookies that will work fine.  Or (2) try submitting your comment more than once.  Each try rewrites the cookies, though it might take two or three tries to get them all updated.  After that, the comments should work fine.  Sorry for the trouble!

Some flew this path before

The crystal river flows south these days.  Winged ones swim from home and hearth toward winter vacations in warmer climes.  Some journey to the end of the river while others find respite along its shores.  I watch some dive in and leave, not to be seen again until next year; I watch others arrive from upstream who only stay until spring; and I see those who do not travel the winding path of the migration flow, but who instead live all year upon the banks we call home.

A male wood duck (Aix sponsa) in breeding plumage as he floats on still waters (2009_02_13_008550)

Unlike most birds, ducks molt twice per year: once in late summer to early autumn as they don their breeding plumage, then again in late spring to early summer as they dress in eclipse plumage.  This male wood duck (Aix sponsa) has just finished putting on his breeding best, and the result is what I consider to be the most beautiful duck plumage on the planet.  Though this species lives here all year, wood duck numbers grow dramatically in winter as northern populations move south.

Two juvenile ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) arguing atop a light post (2009_02_13_008370)

Two juvenile ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) disagree about how many birds can comfortably sit atop the light post.  Along with a variety of other gull and tern species, these birds spend winter here before returning to homes that don’t get as hot.  Only the interior least tern lives and breeds at White Rock Lake in summer, though many gull and tern species visit regularly; those numbers grow dramatically in winter.

An Eastern kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) perched in a tree (2009_04_16_015208)

Eastern kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) live and breed here, but as most other flycatchers do, they must head south in winter lest they starve for lack of food.  Yet even as innumerable insectivores like these move away, others fill the void—for our weather limits but does not prohibit insects in winter.

A clay-colored sparrow (Spizella pallida) sitting in an evergreen tree (2009_05_04_017996)

Clay-colored sparrows (Spizella pallida) stop only to grab a meal and some rest, then they wade back into the airborne river and swim southward.  For them, deep South Texas is as far north as they will stay in winter.  This one nibbled on evergreens with some friends before taking flight.

A female barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) standing on the side of a bridge (2009_05_04_018028)

This female barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) no doubt will return in spring to mate and nest.  Perhaps she will return to the same bridge where I found her, a footbridge under which barn swallows brood and raise young every year.  In spring they will fill the air with song and aerobatics.  For now, however, they drift on the currents that move steadily away, always toward warmth, a mass of life following autumn’s progression toward the spring that lies just beyond the equator.

A male common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) rustling his feathers (2009_05_04_018317)

This male common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) stood on the pier and rustled his feathers as if shaking off the gloomy prospect of migration.  This species is a yearlong resident, though populations further north move here in winter to escape the colder weather.  By December at least two grackle species will fill the mornings with noise and antics, hundreds of them perching along overhead wires at nearly every road intersection.  And when they move to find food, they move en masse in a boisterous cloud that would embarrass whole flocks of European starlings.

A western kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) perched on a branch (2009_05_17_019847)

Like their eastern cousins, western kingbirds (Tyrannus verticalis) thrive in the warm months that provide bountiful invertebrates for flycatchers.  But the buffet dwindles as cooler weather prevails, hence the kingbirds take flight and join the army of life heading south.  They will be gone only until spring when autumn filters into the southern hemisphere.  I already miss their voices.

A female red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) perched in reeds (2009_05_31_020987)

Not a day goes by when I can’t see a red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus).  This female watching me soon will be joined by more of her kind who arrive on the crystal river and come ashore to overwinter with friends.  In the coming months these birds will fill every reed bed around the lake, a cacophony of life filling the dormant winter browns with vigorous antics and delightful song.  Many faces will join hers, and walks around White Rock Lake will proffer scenes like this multiplied a thousandfold.

[more migration photos coming]

The rookery – Part 3

Humans seem inclined to lens the world through vision focused on self.  Thus becomes the agony of aloneness, separation from the world that nurtures us despite our intent to destroy it and all it births.  Too long have people scampered about in hurried endeavors to own, to acquire, to master.  And in response to our anthropocentric ways, too many lives have been brushed from the face of the planet that will never again be seen.

Long before sunrise on July 23, 1998, the city of Carrollton, Texas, began work on what it dubbed “Operation Remove Excrement.”  Huge industrial lights invaded the darkness at 4:00 AM and a motte at the city’s Josey Ranch Park came to life with the sound of bulldozers.  By 4:30 AM as resident Jack Laivins drove to work, the sky above the trees roiled with billowing smoke.  Upon closer inspection, though, he realized the smoke was actually thousands of heron and egret adults circling in the night sky above the municipal park.  Carrollton had decided to raze an active bird rookery while parents and offspring remained in the nests.

The official cost was staggering: several hundred birds killed, many hundreds more injured, thousands forced to abandon the area—most likewise abandoning their young, and an entire breeding territory decimated at the height of migratory bird nesting.  The city’s reason?  They had received “numerous complaints” about the noise and odor.  The town claimed it studied the area for several months, took its time in planning the action, and needed no permission to remove inconvenient birds. 

Acting lawfully, responsibly and humanely explains why the devastation took place during the overnight hours such that it would be complete before daybreak.  Unfortunately for Carrollton, it could never be completed before citizens noticed the dead bodies, the orphaned chicks, the wounded animals left in piles of rubble, and the panicked adults searching desperately for their children.  Three days later, hungry and parched birds were still being pulled from twisted and crushed debris, many with broken wings or legs, many more with neck or spine injuries, and some with limbs nearly severed.

The Josey Ranch Park rests on land donated by Don Josey, father of Melissa Gribble, a federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator.  The city’s sense of irony was fully intact.  They paid nearly $200,000 in rehabilitation costs and federal fines—an amount profoundly lacking under the circumstances.  And the public backlash reached international proportions as news of the incident spread.

The horror of Carrollton’s actions represents the worst of human society, a place where wildlife already pushed from most of its native habitat must face yet another harrowing obstacle course: trying to survive in those tiny plots of land still available whilst simultaneously hoping to go unnoticed by those who see such things as nuisances, inconveniences to be wiped from the planet’s surface.

Now leap forward to February 2009 at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center rookery in Dallas.

One-year-old little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) nesting for the first time as it transitions from the juvenile’s all-white plumage to the adult’s all-dark plumage (2009_05_17_019779)

After great egrets began arriving and building nests, maintenance staff decided to “landscape” around the tree grove that hosts a surprisingly diverse group of birds.  The school called it brush clearing.  Photos of the aftermath showed nests on the ground; saplings, snags and small trees felled; significant understory clearing; the pond wholly exposed to sunshine and human activity; and a lot of plant removal beneath and inside the drip line where birds actively roost.  Images also captured egrets wandering through a stark landscape that once hid them from prying eyes and predators.

Recently fledged male house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) perched in a tree (2009_05_17_019810)

“They didn’t know the birds were there.”  Thus constitutes the brevity of the university’s response when asked about the incident.  Given the birds fly in and out of the trees on wings that span nearly six feet/two meters, and they make a great deal of noise during the breeding and nesting season, they could hardly go unnoticed.  After all, even the children at the daycare center across the street already had noticed the birds, small kids intoxicated by the exotic magic of the area where flying giants and colorful creatures spend many months from late winter through early autumn—and where these mystical beings have done so for at least half a century.

Male common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) collecting insects for his chicks (2009_06_20_023983)

Many feared this represented a precursor to a Carrollton-like assault on the rookery.  Vocal citizens and organizations spoke up and the local media responded.  The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department got involved.  Yet I spent an insightful morning speaking to UT Southwestern administrators and walked away with an impression not of imminent doom but of palpable fear of bad press coupled with a sense of obligation and promise.

Little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) chicks still in the nest (2009_06_13_023108)

“It’s about the birds, not the people.”  No other statement from university officials struck me like that  one.  The UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas has “officially” hosted the rookery on campus grounds since at least 1966.  Circumstantial evidence suggests the rookery existed as far back as 1959 and anecdotal evidence indicates herons and egrets have nested in the area since at least 1938.  Regardless of the exact date, fifty years of the school’s own records stand as significant tribute to the longevity of this urban wildlife haven.

Recently fledged black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) perched in a tree (2009_06_20_023813)

Dr. Charles Sprague, the first president of the university, asked that the birds be allowed to use the area for as long as they chose to nest there, essentially requesting of UT Southwestern that they respect and protect the site ad infinitum.  The school agreed.  Perhaps their readiness to accept that challenge stemmed from “knowledgeable sources” who claimed the rookery would self-destruct within ten years due to the volume of guano and the impact it would have on soil acidity and flora.  Contrary to that prediction, susceptible plants died while a host of other plants thrived—and the rookery goes on.

Great egret (Ardea alba) chick peering down from the nest(2009_06_13_023179)

An ongoing grassroots effort hopes to convince the UT System Board of Regents and the Texas Legislature to grant official recognition and protection to the rookery.  UT Southwestern appears inclined to host the birds, even if as an act of tolerance only, and as state property and a state organization the campus cannot blindly destroy the area without putting Texas in the position of having wiped out a long-lived nesting site for protected birds.

Nevertheless, many agree more can and should be done, especially in light of the greatest threat the birds now face, a relentless and insidious foe whose unimaginable power is matched only by heartlessness.  This adversary is responsible for the death of a great many birds this year, and the villain has caused the failure and abandonment of more nests in the rookery than has ever been seen before.  Even nests with chicks have been left to suffer under the skeletal hand of this monster.  The attacker remains bent on destroying what little of nature remains unscathed by the spread of civilization.

The enemy is at the gates.  You will come face to face with the ghoul in the final part of this series.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] One-year-old little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) nesting for the first time as it transitions from the juvenile’s all-white plumage to the adult’s all-dark plumage

[2] Recently fledged male house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)

[3] Male common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) collecting insects for his chicks

[4] Little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) chicks still in the nest

[5] Recently fledged black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)

[6] Great egret (Ardea alba) chick peering down from the nest

[cross-posted to The Clade]