Grackle hordes invade Austin grocery stores; why this species is more than meets the eye

Weather & Traffic In-Depth

AUSTIN (KXAN) — You’ve likely seen them while driving around Austin this month. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of black birds. Grackles. While this species can be seen as an annoyance, they’re actually a fascinating species and might be one of the most special on Earth.

“Folks go out grocery shopping at night at H-E-B and you see what could be hundreds of grackles roosting up in the trees,” said grackle researcher Jessica Yorzinski with Texas A&M. She says that while some grackles are native, legions of the birds flock to Central Texas each winter.

These birds like to hang out in grocery store parking lots and along the side of major roads. Yorzinski said this is because they are attracted to the lights at night, where they can remain active.

During the winter months, grackles like to roost. This is why you don’t see one or two of them together, but hundreds or even thousands sitting along power lines and in trees.

Grackles as a one-of-a-kind species

Yorzinski said a fascinating behavior of the species is their swarming behavior. She said this swarming behavior is uncommon for birds in the United States, and is more frequently seen in Africa.

Another thing that is interesting about grackles — their eyes.

“The birds can basically be moving each eye independently from the other one,” Yorzinski said. She and a team of researchers from Texas A&M discovered the birds could do. They published their findings earlier this year in Experimental Brain Research.

“They can move them whenever they need to, to get information that might be relevant in these different sides of their visual space.”

The team would show the grackles photos of people’s faces. There would be two photos, one on the left side of their head and the other on the right side. They would then move the photos. Each eye could follow the photos independently of the other.

Basically, they could put a photo up high on the right side of the bird and one down low on the left side. The right eye would look up, the left eye would look down. They would then move the right photo and the right eye would stay on the photo, while the left eye didn’t move.

Grackles are the only bird we know that can do this. They’re also one of the few that have been researched.

Yorzinski and her team also researched grackle eyelids and discovered they have very precise blinking. “When they’re taking off flying, flying, in flight and when they’re landing they tend not to blink that much… If you’re going that fast, lots of obstacles potentially in the air.”

So next time you look up at the swarming clouds of grackles in the sky, remember that these birds are more than just an annoying, car-ruining pest. They’re something to keep an eye on.

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