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Falconer Jeff Cattoor and Blackjack in downtown Fort Worth, Texas. The city started using birds of prey to scare off pest birds like grackles. (Photo courtesy Stephen Spillman, Image Magazine.)

Falconer Jeff Cattoor and Blackjack in downtown Fort Worth, Texas. The city started using birds of prey to scare off pest birds like grackles. (Photo courtesy Stephen Spillman, Image Magazine.)

11/08/2006

Quoth the Grackle Hunter: Nevermore

By Elizabeth Bassett

The parking lot at Interstate 820 and North Beach Street in Fort Worth, Texas, is the local gathering place for teenagers in souped-up cars with expensive rims and fluorescent lights. It’s a warm Saturday night, and teenagers aren’t the only ones out at midnight.

Jeff Cattoor parks his car as the other cars in his caravan find spots among the Ford Mustangs and Honda Civics. Adolescents swagger about, but Cattoor is focused on the tree branches above their heads, attuned to the cackles and screeches coming from the thousands of birds perched in the leafy darkness of the trees.

Cattoor has come with a simple-sounding mission: to chase off these birds, called grackles. These innocuous-looking creatures are about a foot in length, the males iridescent blue-black, the females a two-toned brown. Besides eating grain and garbage, the birds are insectivores, a plus in this warm, humid climate.

But grackles are also taking up an unnatural residence in the urban sprawl of Texas cities. The flocks perch in neatly groomed trees along parking lots and public spaces, well-lit, developed areas devoid of some of their natural predators, such as owls. They are noisy, with a piercing, drawn-out shriek, and their smelly droppings turn black tarmac a chalky white.

Texas is home to small populations of grackles, but most of the birds migrate here seasonally from the Midwest and Canada. In the past, during the natural course of their annual migrations, flocks stopped only temporarily in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on their way to southern Texas or Mexico. Today, these flocks are instead staying indefinitely at their stopover.

Getting rid of the birds poses a problem for urban centers, since they cannot legally be trapped or killed. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, established in 1918, protects migratory birds and their “parts” (the commercial trade in feathers at the time was causing concern). Because grackles are protected, taking action against them must be done carefully. And as winter approaches, the cities are again facing flocks of guests that outstay their welcomes.

This is why Cattoor and others are taking unusual measures to scare the birds away. Donning a leather glove, Cattoor reaches into his car and brings out Blackjack, a young reddish-brown Harris’s hawk, a species native to Texas. The twittering of the teenagers increases as he releases Blackjack. The grackles grow quiet, suddenly realizing they are being hunted.

Blackjack is only one of several weapons that bird foes use in the war against grackles in Fort Worth. Workers fire cracker shells, shotgun explosives that detonate about 50 yards from discharge, and deploy cannons. Some use a grape-scented nose- and eye-irritating fog. Cattoor also brought a harmless laser, much like the ones used in pointers, with him on this night—it looks like a heavy metal flashlight, but it requires a key to work and says “Class IIIb laser product” on the side.

Fort Worth Pest and Termite, a company contracted by Downtown Fort Worth, Inc., also uses these lasers against flocks in the no-noise zone of the city. Each laser costs $1500 and the beam travels up to six miles. The hawks are meant to reinforce the scare from the lasers. Rodney Demon, the owner of Fort Worth Pest and Termite, has about 16 years of personal experience with pest birds of all kinds in all situations, and he got the idea of using lasers from the USDA. The bright spot scares the birds, theoretically making them think they are being hunted by a strange creature which can advance up the tree trunk and appear on the branch next to them. Grackles see the spot and surge out of trees.

Blackjack latches his talons onto a grackle from a group he scared from a tree by the highway onramp. There are panicked sounds from the grackle, but the rest of the birds are already circling trees in the next parking lot over, getting ready to land. “One thing I’ve found,” Cattoor says, “is that if no [bird] gets hurt, they’ll get used to anything. They’ve gotten used to teenagers with their loud music and gunning engines and weird effects.”

To ensure the birds move out permanently, pest fighters must make it continuously uncomfortable for the birds to roost in an area. Efforts that sufficiently startle the birds—the fog, the noise, the lights, even the hawks—may merely move them to another, untreated location. The grackles may then return to their old haunt the next day, or even later the same night. That’s why Cattoor and his fellow falconers take their hawks out several days in a row, and that’s why Demon pinpoints persistence and manpower as the biggest factors in his success. “This is not an event,” said Demon. “It’s a program.” Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth, Inc., said that every year will bring a new wave of birds that will have to be shown plainly that Fort Worth is not a place to take up permanent residence.

Financing a long-term war against grackles is like financing any war—difficult. Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. draws money from local businesses and the city, and for 2006 it set aside $50,000 just for the contract paid to deter grackles. That may sound like a sizeable chunk of change, but it barely covers the expenses. The city exceeded its grackle-fighting budget in 2005, according to Taft. Most of this money goes toward paying the workers who spent endless hours on the streets, repeatedly scaring the birds. There’s also $30,000 spent on cleaning downtown, including the areas covered in grackle droppings. The budget doesn’t even cover the cost of hiring Cattoor and his fellow falconers. They are volunteers because USDA regulations prohibit falconers from being paid to deter birds in most situations.

So far, it appears the grackles are more of a nuisance than a health hazard. Despite bird flu headlines dominating health news, the illnesses which could spread from grackles are primarily fungal, not viral. Humans can catch histoplasmosis and aspergillosis, which cause respiratory problems, from inhaling the dust of dried bird droppings. Like bird flu, the infections cause nonspecific “flu-like” symptoms, but bed rest and an anti-fungal medication generally cure the illness. “People aren’t yet looking at this as a health and human services thing,” Cattoor says, watching Blackjack, who is now on the ground with his prey, jerking his body violently as he rips the grackle into pieces small enough to swallow. Black feathers roll gently over the grass in the breeze.

Despite evidence that the grackles are leaving downtown Fort Worth, everyone involved in ridding the city of grackles remains hesitant of pronouncing success. At the end of the season, in the spring, some birds will be migrating to their northern homes. Others will simply move from downtown or other treated areas to other, nearby locations; another shopping strip, another university campus, another business park. “We’re not hoisting the mission-accomplished banner yet,” said Taft.

The bottom line is that the birds will always be where people are. The roost at 820 and Beach is appealing to birds and teenagers alike for the same reasons: it’s a large space to gather, and there’s a Whataburger and a Jack in the Box and only intermittent interruptions. Cattoor walks back to his car, carrying a very full Blackjack on his arm. The bird’s crop is puffed out with bits of grackle meat. As Cattoor stows Blackjack, three police cars roll through the parking lot to disperse the crowd. The young people quickly pack into cars and pull out onto the roads. There are shouts out windows as the teens arrange for a new place to meet. Within five minutes, most of the cars are gone and the parking lot is quiet but for the calls of grackles in the trees.

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