A view of the sky between buildings full of flying grackles.
Karen Warren / Houston Chronicle
- 6 min read

🐦 Like birds of a feather, grackles & H-E-B parking lots flock together

Plus, 4 things to watch in City Hall, like a proposal to make Austin an official soccer city.

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Introduction

☀️ Good morning, Austin.

Today, we’re talking about the birds and the bees... but not like that. Below, read about why grackles aren’t just surviving in Austin; they’re thriving.

Plus, how heat, rain and freezes affect Texas bees, and a sneak peek of what’s on the docket at City Council this week.


The birds that aren't disappearing

A few weeks ago, I made a distressing discovery. According to Washington Post’s analysis of eBird data (a crowdsourced database of bird observations), Austin’s great-tailed grackle populations had supposedly declined by 44% between 2012 and 2022.

I know it’s controversial, but I love grackles. They’re tough-looking, badass birds who aren’t afraid to claim human territory as their own. What’s more Texan than that?

Photo of a single great-tailed grackle perched in a tree branch.
Just look at that poise. This dude doesn't let anyone mess with him. (VW Pics / Getty Images)

Good news, bad news: We’ve lost billions of birds since 1970, but the great-tailed grackle doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, Austin’s birding community told me.

Everyone I spoke to hadn’t seen changes in Austin’s populations. EBird’s shocking numbers likely had more to do with how the data is recorded.

“No real birders are looking for a grackle,” said Peter English, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Texas in Austin and birder. “They’re looking for the weird things, the rare things, the seasonal things.”

So the grackles are OK?

Grackles are rare in that they not only survive but thrive alongside humans. As English puts it, they have very few limitations:

  • They don’t fear humans.
  • They don’t have picky habitat requirements.
  • And, they’re omnivores.

Alternatively, take the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.

“They’re super picky,” explained English. They need a very specific hillside habitat with a mix of oak and juniper to nest. “Which is good initially. That’s what made it so they weren’t in conflict with other species, but now they’re in conflict with us.”

And when it’s humans versus birds, we humans tend to dominate.

Except when it comes to grackles...

A flock of grackles against a grey sky.
Kevin Geil / San Antonio Express-News

In the great Grackles vs. Austinites War, grackles may be winning. Their aggressive personalities and parking lot swarms seem to annoy humans a lot more than our urban development tends to affect the grackles.

Exhibit A: Their H-E-B parking lot roosts.

In the wild, boat-tailed grackles (a close relative of the great-tailed…so close they were once thought to be the same) often nest in large communities in thick foliage over water or flooded tidal areas, away from predators, explained English. 

“So you look at an H-E-B parking lot, and that’s exactly what that is. It’s just not over water,” said English. “We recreated their breeding habitat.” 

It’s thought they also flock to parking lots for the easy food supply. Or the nighttime lighting, according to early studies from Jenna Turpin, a PhD student at Texas A&M studying the urban ecology of birds, specifically the factors that make great-tailed grackles so good at adapting to urban environments. (Follow and contribute to it here.)

Great-tailed grackles and starlings gather around a lamp post as dusk falls.
Karen Warren / Houston Chronicle

Cities often make an effort to turn off lights to protect birds (and for good reason), but once again grackles buck the norm.

Turpin says that while the lights seem to keep them active later into the night, it’s worth it for the grackles to more easily spot predators. Plus, early research seems to show they’re quickly able to acclimate to the disruption the night lights cause on their sleep cycles and stress levels.

So what if the grackle population ever does start to decline?

Grackles fill the niche of being a really prolific Blackbird species, and losing that would have a cascading effect on other species in the environment, said Turpin.

Some of their benefits:

  • Grackles are a food source for other urban animals.
  • They eat insects and invertebrates.
  • They clean up after us by eating our trash.

If they did start declining, English said, he’d be concerned — and curious.

“They’re the most favored bird right now,” he said. It might not be intentional, but “we do everything to make it so their populations don’t decline.”

Plus, if grackles ever went away, we would lose one of the few naturally occurring interactions with wildlife we have in our current urban environment.

“I know that some people wouldn’t miss that,” said Turpin, “But I think that is something worth missing.”

— Cat DeLaura, Reporter


Temperature: Falling into the 50s  Sun: Behind clouds What to Expect: Blustery north winds

Austin’s fixin’ to pull a Jon Snow because winter is coming (back.)

We’ll start the morning with mild temperatures around daybreak, but a cold front will arrive shortly after and bring with it a big drop in the mercury. It’ll be a shock to the system with the last couple of lovely near-90-degree days.

Mary’s Tip: Grab a jacket before you head out the door because you’ll want it later in the day.


4 things to watch in City Hall this week

Happy City Council meeting week! For the uninitiated, City Council roughly follows a biweekly cadence, and you can find the agenda for each meeting on the city website. We weeded through the dozens of items to find a few highlights. Let us know if there’s something on the agenda you feel strongly about. 

  1. Is Austin a soccer city? Council Member Vanessa Fuentes certainly thinks it could be. Despite growing popularity, soccer fans in the city still face barriers to access (such as a lack of publicly-accessible fields and the high cost of leagues and field maintenance). Council Member Fuentes has sponsored a resolution that would establish Austin as a recognized soccer city and begin to address some of those issues. 
  2. More arts and culture support. Council Member Zohaib Qadri is asking for financial support for the Red River Cultural District. His resolution would also identify sustainable and equitable funding for other cultural and heritage districts.
  3. Hike and bike and city code. City Council will hold a public hearing and consider amending the city code to allow for easier upgrades and changes to the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail.
  4. Zoning changes. The Council will hold a public hearing and consider an ordinance amending city code to create a new zoning district for a density bonus program.

The bees are alright! As long as there aren’t droughts, storms, freezes or extreme heat.

James Nielsen/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

Turns out, Texas’ notorious wild weather can actually affect our bees and honey production  — for better or worse.

Bees in Central Texas make most of their honey during a four-week period in the spring and a two-week period in the fall, according to Tara Chapman, owner of Two Hives Honey in Austin.

They are completely reliant on whether or not flowers bloom and produce nectar — their sole source of food. 

“So, if anything interferes with those plant's ability to produce nectar and pollen, then the bees won’t have a successful year,” she said.

🐝 Multi-year droughts and extreme summer heat can stunt wildflower growth when spring comes around.

🐝 A warm winter can confuse flowers and cause them to bud early, in which case a following freeze would stress them to the point of not producing nectar.

🐝 Heavy rain prevents bees from flying and collecting nectar, plus downpours may dislodge blooms or wash away nectar.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for the blooms! Texas weather can sometimes have perfect timing. 

“Right now, we’ve had this crazy rain and, as long as we don’t have a late freeze, it’s going to be a phenomenal year for the wildflowers,” Chapman said.

— Mary Wasson, Meterologist


Were so glad you found us. Find our bios and contact info here, or reach out at hello@austindaily.com. Behind todays send: Katie Canales, Cat DeLaura, and Mary Wasson.