Hey, Curious Campus: Why do the grackles on campus look so rough? Why are so many missing legs?

Megan Shen

There are a three things that every UT student is accustomed to — electric scooters, squirrels, and, last but not least, grackles.

While people are fairly knowledgeable about the origin and lore behind scooters and squirrels, the same can’t be said about the ubiquitous black birds.

So, when one of our readers asked us, “Why are the grackles on campus so rough looking? Why are so many missing a leg?” we looked into it as part of Curious Campus, our series where we answer reader-submitted questions every week.

The distinctive screech of a grackle is one recognizable to many students, and the long-tailed birds definitely have a reputation in Austin. With a large population residing at UT, grackles are known to be bold, noisy and ugly. History freshman Jake Jackson said while he’s lived in Texas for a while, he’s noticed a high density of grackles in Austin.

“They’re like the only birds that benefit from urban sprawl because they just eat trash, so they naturally look disgusting,” Jackson said.

Nicole Elmer, administrative associate for the UT Biodiversity Center, said there’s also a seasonal reasoning behind grackles’ rugged appearances. Elmer said grackles will molt their tail feathers in the fall, making them look very squat and almost like kiwi birds.

“In the summertime, a lot of the juveniles will come out of the nest, and they’re really rough-looking,” Elmer said. “They don’t have a lot of feathers, … their heads are bald because they’re still getting their first layer of feathers, and they’re still growing up.”

But what about the missing legs?

 



Elmer said one possibility is the birds were run over by a vehicle, got out of the way just in time and only damaged their leg.

“I can only speculate, because they’re really bold birds, that they have probably had an accident,” Elmer said. “I don’t think it, to my knowledge, has anything to do with a disease. I think it’s purely just an accident, but they seem to be able to survive without it just fine.”

Elmer said another possibility is that grackles simply prop up one of their legs when they feel the need to rest their feet.

“It’s sometimes like they’re resting,” Elmer said. “It’s kind of (what) horses do. Horses will sometimes lift one leg when they’re just sitting in the pasture, so they can take the pressure off.”

Studio art senior Katie Broyles has also noticed the grackles’ gangly appearance and brazen behavior, but she offered her own take on why grackles are the way the are.

“It’s because they eat Chick-fil-A all the time, and they’re really unhealthy,” Broyles said. “Don’t feed wild animals.”