By Kimberlee Hauss
A dark, thick cloud of black appears on the horizon and quickly begins moving over Jackson. The blackness stretches from one end of the sky to the other, overtaking the last few minutes of sunlight.
Drivers on U.S. 45-Bypass stare out of their windows in wonder as one dark cloud intersects another in utter chaos. Residents outside around 5:45 p.m. run for cover to avoid droplets as the threatening cloud moves directly over their heads. Several with weaker stomachs cringe at the terrifying sight.
The air thickens and the trees populate as these clouds fight for a spot on a branch. They are not full of rain, however, and they do not bring storms — just lots and lots of birds.
Every afternoon as the sun dips low and leaves streaks of orange, pink and purple across the sky, common grackles, which are medium-sized blackbirds, begin flooding into Jackson. Scott Somershoe, state ornithologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, said different streams of 5,000‑10,000 birds each swell and move together as one over the city.
In the distance, more flocks pour in to join the others that have already found a cluster of trees for the night. A whirlpool of grackles hovers above the trees, until thousands have joined the ranks in what looks like a scene from a horror film. It seems as though Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds” has come to life in Jackson. The sheer number of grackles filling the city and squawking their greetings to one another can make a person’s skin crawl.
A man and his curious son jump out of the car to capture the incredible sight on camera as an estimated 2 million birds zigzag in patterns across the sky, said Dr. James Huggins, university professor of biology and director of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
A young couple emerging from Target with purchases in-hand makes a mad dash for their car after spotting the flocks above. Startled neighbors jump in surprise as disgruntled Jackson residents fire shotguns and firecrackers to scare the birds from landing in their yards.
Responses vary but one question remains the same: What are all the birds doing in Jackson?
While the phenomenon may seem new to Jackson residents, the roosting of grackles during the winter is actually common, said Huggins.
The birds congregate at night during the cold months for protection and warmth, choosing a different area every year. With the rising of the sun, they scatter into smaller groups to find food and return to their roosting location at sunset.
Somershoe, said the birds travel as far as the adjoining counties in search of food every day.
“I expect they’ve got to spread out pretty far to feed that many birds,” Somershoe
Once the trees begin to bloom and new growth signifies spring, the astounding population of grackles disseminates. Spring fever hits, they pair up and migrate north to the wetlands where they nest. Somershoe said after a winter of camaraderie, they become territorial.
“They say, ‘Alright, I’ve had enough of you.’ It’s spring season – time to start fighting and splitting up,” he said.
This year, grackles chose the residential area of Jackson, especially the campus of Union University, as the headquarters for their communal roost.
Rob Colvin, TWRA non-game biologist, could not explain the birds’ choice.
“Most of the time you see grackles outside the city limits, especially in rural counties,” Colvin said. “I don’t know why they would be (in Jackson) this year.”
The birds typically roost in the countryside to have enough room to flock together, but in the city this is impossible.
“They would like to be in all one great big group,” Huggins said. “But because the trees are scattered out they can only put so many thousand in this group and so many thousand in that group.”
Choosing the city as a roosting site not only proved difficult for the birds, but also for the residents. Huggins said grackles leave behind waste products that fungi can grow in, which can become a health hazard.
“If they go out along the Forked Deer River again that’s OK,” Huggins said. “You can leave all that waste out there … It’ll break down in time, but humans don’t like it on their cars or yards, and I don’t blame them.”
Unfortunately, Somershoe said, Jackson has historically had a large group of grackles. He said it could be worse, such as in south Texas, where several million birds roost each year.
The good news is that warmer weather brings longer days and with the first signs of spring the grackles have already begun to pair off and leave the roost. Although there is no guarantee the birds will never return to Jackson in hordes, at least they are leaving for the year.
Huggins said they choose a new location every time, so Jackson residents can rest easy. However, next winter, keep a wary eye for the black clouds that may roll over the city once more.