Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

They’re back

with 37 comments

The grackles, that is. Every day now, beginning around 6 o’clock and increasing as the sun goes down in the western sky, hundreds and hundreds of grackles fly in and gather on the electric station towers and power lines near the intersection of US 183 and Braker Lane in my northwestern part of Austin. For those not familiar with them—a negative that leaves out just about everyone in Austin—I’ll add that these are large blackbirds, known to ornithologists as Quiscalus mexicanus. I first became aware of their conspicuous flocking to this site last November, but perhaps the birds were massing here as early as October last year, too, and I just didn’t notice. Why they settle in such large numbers on the power lines and adjacent trees and other structures as daylight fades I don’t know, but on October 16, two evenings ago, I went out with my longest lens to record the grackles’ flocking. As I mentioned on July 4, I don’t normally include human elements in my nature pictures, but this is one of those times when I make an exception, because the birds have clearly adapted themselves to the electric towers and power lines.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

October 18, 2011 at 5:55 AM

37 Responses

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  1. When I was a child, I could never quite understand how the birds seemed to know which lines to land on. Thinking about it, I’m not sure I really know now. I wouldn’t know which cables you could hold without getting a shock, how does a bird know?
    Nice photo, there is so much going on here I can spend ages looking at all the different poses.

    Malcolm Newell

    October 18, 2011 at 6:38 AM

    • Yes, it seems chaotic when the birds are flying every which way, but they always seem to work it out. Although there’s a lot going in this picture, there was even more, but I cropped it so there wouldn’t be too much to deal with in a half-megapixel image.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 18, 2011 at 10:14 AM

    • The birds can sit on live power lines as long as they don’t touch a pole or another line and produce a short circuit. If that happens it’s the end of the bird of course. The resistance of the wire is much smaller than the resistance of the bird, only very little electricity goes through the bird’s feet. It tickles and is warm, the birds obviously like that. I worked as a technician and used isolating transformers that allowed me to touch live wires, that’s how I know.


      October 18, 2011 at 1:10 PM

      • Now we know why the birds congregate on those wires: because it feels good to them. Excellent. Thanks for your insight into this phenomenon.

        Steve Schwartzman

        October 18, 2011 at 2:18 PM

      • Thanks sanetes, next time I look at Starlings roosting on cables I’ll be thinking of their nice warm feet !

        Malcolm Newell

        October 20, 2011 at 2:54 PM

  2. Nice capture – I love all the commotion but also the stability that the power lines (with stationary birds) provide. Like you, I tend to try to eliminate human elements from nature photos, but in this case it really works!


    October 18, 2011 at 6:51 AM

    • I’m glad you agree that it works, Shelly. I like all the power lines, but especially the one that makes an arc of birds near the top of the picture.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 18, 2011 at 10:17 AM

  3. I hate it when these birds appear. They bring coccidia to our farm that kills at least a couple of baby creatures every year. This year it was baby goats. Regardless of my dislike for the birds, the picture is lovely. I enjoy your posts!


    October 18, 2011 at 9:40 AM

    • I had to look up coccidia, not ever having heard of it. Yes, grackles can be messy, and the ground and objects under the places where they congregate can become fouled and smell bad. In spite of that, I’m glad you were able to appreciate the picture for its own sake and that you enjoy these posts.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 18, 2011 at 10:26 AM

  4. This is a great shot – what an amazing flock of birds! The crisscrossing wires add to the sense of chaos.

    Journey Photographic

    October 19, 2011 at 7:20 AM

    • Thanks. I, too, was taken with the chaos of the birds’ movements and the crisscrossing wires.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 19, 2011 at 7:46 AM

  5. Hitchcock would be proud… 🙂


    October 19, 2011 at 7:41 AM

    • None of the birds ever attacked me, but walking underneath so many of them carried another risk.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 19, 2011 at 7:48 AM

  6. I have known these birds almost since I can remember birds, probably the early 50’s. My parents would do anything to get them not to nest in the trees in our home. What then was the outskirts of Austin, now within a block of the first Central Market at 40th and Lamar. They love humans and what we have done to our surroundings. They prefer our mowed lawns and trimmed trees, with no understory. I know that UT and others have attempted with shotguns using blanks to remove them from their environs and now it seems they have found a congregating point in NW Austin. From here into northern Mexico they are found in cities. This is a bird I rarely see in undeveloped areas. I used to despise them but now find them intriguing as they have learned to adapt to our urban environment and may be almost as smart as crows. I am wondering if we have a term for such a characteristic other than urbanite.

    Great photo.


    October 19, 2011 at 1:34 PM

    • I’m glad you like this photo, Sue. You’ve known grackles longer than I have. They’ve certainly adapted to human life, though as you point out humans aren’t always so eager to have them around. In addition to the site in northwest Austin, I also found a lot of grackles last November congregating at sundown in the power lines by the Fiesta on I-35 at 38th St. I haven’t been by there this year, given that I have my “own” site so close to where I live.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 19, 2011 at 3:09 PM

  7. Very, very cool shot Steve!


    October 19, 2011 at 3:36 PM

    • Thanks, Eden. And if I can make a play on words, the weather hadn’t even turned cool yet.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 19, 2011 at 3:53 PM

  8. A large colony roosts about three blocks from me, on the wires and trees surrounding a Randall’s grocery and parking lot south of Houston. And, for years – decades, really – they’ve roosted in the trees surrounding Rice University. Their cacophony’s as much a part of the school year as books and beer!

    It’s marvelous to watch them fly in, and they’re so funny as they arrange themselves on the wires. “Personal space” clearly is important. If one lands a little too close to one, the whole line will adjust itself to ensure even spacing all down the line.

    Thanks for this wonderful photo of a true phenomenon!


    October 19, 2011 at 6:07 PM

    • It seems we live in parallel worlds. Where your grackles attend Rice University, some in Austin attend the University of Texas. While yours hang out at Randall’s, some here prefer Fiesta. I can’t say whose group produces the greater cacophony.

      I’ve often thought about personal space, or the lack of it, in nature. Your description of how the grackles shift positions to accommodate newcomers seems to lend itself to a doctoral thesis for some graduate student in need of a topic.

      Yes, watching the grackles fly in is fun. At the site near me, large numbers occasionally change places between the wires and the nearby trees. That often happens all of a sudden, presumably when something startles a group of them. If there were more light, I might attempt some videos.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 19, 2011 at 7:49 PM

  9. Great pic – I had never heard of ‘grackles’ before. It’s brought back memories about that Hitchcock movie I watched as a child 🙂

    Claire Takacs

    October 21, 2011 at 3:01 AM

  10. Thanks, Claire. Grackles can be messy, but they’re not hostile to people, the way Hitchcock’s birds were.

    Steve Schwartzman

    October 21, 2011 at 6:39 AM

  11. This is a neat shot – I’ve never seen so many birds in one place!

    Erin McNaughton

    October 23, 2011 at 11:42 PM

    • Thanks, Erin. There were even more birds, but I cropped the photo to make a version that would show up well when blog-sized.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 24, 2011 at 6:52 AM

  12. What a beautiful, chaotic photo. I think this would be interesting to see with a more stark/black & white feel.


    October 24, 2011 at 2:21 PM

  13. I’m bewildered at your shot. You probably cannot include any more birds into this photo as it looks the maximum already.
    I get instant recollection of the old time classic movie ‘The Birds’ and still wonder how did the great Sir Hitchcock managed to bring together so much of the birds in the movie shots!


    October 25, 2011 at 4:13 PM

    • The original did show more birds, but for Internet purposes I cropped the picture.

      My understanding is that it took a lot of training to get the birds in Hitchcock’s movie to do what they did.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 25, 2011 at 5:12 PM

  14. […] last time I said “They’re back,” I meant the many grackles massing on power lines in my neighborhood at sundown each day. Now I mean monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus, though so […]

  15. I’d like these birds if they didn’t make so much noise, poop all over the sidewalk downtown, and weren’t so in-your-face. Other birds are scared of people, but not pigeons or grackles. I enjoy watching the hawks at my office building snatch them up and eat them.

    Ann M. Skowronski

    November 19, 2011 at 2:36 PM

    • I noticed once again how noisy they are the other night, when I returned for I think my fourth session this season. And I was careful not to stand directly under the power lines were so many birds were perched. I’ve never seen a hawk grab one or even circle in the vicinity of the many at Braker Lane and US 183.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 19, 2011 at 7:51 PM

  16. […] last time you saw the grackles, most of them were sitting on some power lines, where many are content to stay put for short or long stretches. Others  forage for food on the […]

  17. […] title “They’re back”—which I’ve used before—applies to several things. What first occurred to me this time was that, like various other […]

  18. I Like this, just a little chaos going on.


    September 16, 2012 at 2:02 PM

  19. I wonder if the grackles are once again gathering this fall, 11 years later.


    October 16, 2022 at 5:47 PM

    • It’s been several years since I’ve seen really large groups of them. I don’t know if the decline is a trend or just a normal fluctuation. It’s also possible I just haven’t been in the right place at the right time to see a big flock.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 16, 2022 at 9:37 PM

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