Whistle While You Work

Linda Burton posting from Austin, Texas — It was a noisy afternoon on the capitol grounds; visitors everywhere, traffic heavy on Congress Street, construction happening across 12th. Why is everyone whistling, I wondered. Whistling. Shrill. Almost like a musical instrument badly played; a stick pulled along a wire, tightly strung, then back again. The noise went shrilling up, then sliding down.

A black bird lit on the ground in front of me. More birds, in the trees, on the sidewalk, flying past my head, so fast that it was just a blur. A bossy whistle, nothing subtle there. A crow? Couldn’t be a crow, the sound was wrong. Couldn’t be a crow, the color was wrong too. This bird shimmered purple-ish on its head, its eyes were yellow, not black-crow black.

It took an internet search for me to find the name: GRACKLE. Southeast Texas is full of grackles, and the great-tailed variety is in love with Austin. Austin residents are not in accord on returning that love.

You don’t need a permit from the state of Texas to get rid of them, as they are not an endangered species by any stretch. But how? Shotgun blasts may send them scurrying, but they leave their gooey mark behind, and return to poop again. So you are left with the choice of tolerating them, or perhaps, creating grackle art.

A number of Austin artists have been inspired by the grackle; Consider the Grackle, an exhibit put together by Clayworks Studio/Gallery on E 6,th was so successful they were asked to stage it at Austin Bergstrom International Airport’s Stars of Austin Gallery, where it remains through March 31. http://www.clayworks.net/events.html

Poets have written about the grackle too. Wallace Stevens had a lovely line, “The grackles crack their throats of bone”; Ogden Nash was less lyrical in his Ode to The Grackle:

The grackle’s voice is less than mellow,

His heart is black, his eye is yellow,

He bullies more attractive birds

With hoodlum deeds and vulgar words,

And should a human interfere,

Attacks that human in the rear.

I cannot help but deem the grackle

An ornithological debacle.

Described by some as “machinery in need of lubrication,” if you hear a rapid-fire ki-ki-ki, repeated about 12 times, watch out; a grackle is about to come courting. Look for a black bird, about 18 inches long, with a bit of iridescent purple on his head, making rattling, squeaking, whistling noises, and definitely in charge of things. It’s a grackle, part of the soundtrack of Austin.