Gun-toting grackle control squad no longer needed at UT

Zach Lyons

Students parking their cars on campus may be upset to find their hoods sullied by the unfortunate evidence of birds perched in the trees above, but there was a time when UT faced the same problem on a much greater scale. 

In the 1980s, nearly every corner of campus was affected by a flood of grackles, shiny black birds that flock to urban areas. John Burns, landscape services manager for facilities services, said waste from the birds was becoming a serious problem.

“The stench was terrible, the mess on the sidewalks, … the salt levels from the droppings were so high it was actually building up in the soils from us washing it off the sidewalks,” Burns said. “It was causing a lot of health issues for the plants and trees.”

After several unsuccessful attempts to fend off the grackles, Burns devised a solution: His team began using shell crackers, a special type of nonlethal ammunition for shotguns, which scared away birds by launching the equivalent of a firecracker into the sky. Burns said the team took extra precautions to make sure they didn’t accidentally alarm the campus community.

“We wanted to be as visible as possible. … We wore vests, eye protection, ear protection,” Burns said. “It was hopefully obvious to folks there on campus we weren’t there to hurt anybody.”

The team of about 15 would station themselves across campus at dusk, right as thousands of grackles flooded in, and fire into the sky.

Eventually, this began to work — the birds became conditioned to avoid campus. Burns said they stopped using shell crackers as the problem abated, and with safety concerns following 9/11, the method is shelved for good. 

Communication studies senior Madeline Metzger said she would “honestly be terrified” if she saw staff walking around with shotguns these days. 

Advertising junior Clara Patt said she’d be caught off guard by the shell cracker method if it were used today, but adequate notice might ease people’s concerns.

“I’d be pretty uncomfortable with it. … I guess if they got enough word out — [UT] sends out emails and notices when they’re about to do siren tests — I guess they could do that,” Patt said.

While grackles have yet to return to campus in the quantities seen in the 80s, Burns said his team is employing new repellent methods to fend off any returning groups, such as clapping boards together and spraying the affected areas with water.