Earlier this week, ABC13 anchor Christine Dobbyn reported an unnerving encounter with a flock of ground-bound grackles at an Exxon station in Houston.
When she rolled into the station to get gas, the birds covered the ground between all the pumps and up to the door of the Food Mart, as shown in the video Dobbyn posted to Twitter:
“Typically, they are up on the power lines,” she said in an interview with Buzzfeed. “It was crazy that night. I ended up moving across the street to another gas station even though there were some there, as well.”
Buzzfeed contacted ornithologist bird scientist Kevin McGowan to ask him about the birds’ behavior:
Why did they flock to the ground instead of in trees or on power lines? Why do there appear to be uniform spaces between them?
McGowan works in Cornell University’s ornithology lab, and said the bright lights coming from the gas station probably drew the grackles to the ground:
“Great-tailed grackles roost in large numbers regularly in parking lots across Texas. They should be asleep in trees, but these are attracted to the bright lights of the gas station. Perhaps they’re looking for food, but they might just be confused by the lights. Since this is post-sunset, the birds would typically be calmly roosting or sleeping and naturally maintaining a certain spacing between individuals to avoid direct conflicts.”
Richard Prum, a professor of ornithology at Yale, agreed the birds liked to be in well-lit areas to keep an eye out for potential predators, and may have been ousted from their original roosting spot:
“So, what I think may have happened is that a night roost was disturbed so that the birds left the roost in the dark. They might flock away at this point looking for a safe space. That could lead to birds flying down to the well-lit gas station. They are obviously not feeding on anything, so there is no real reason to be there except that it is well-lit and not too disturbed. So, better than all the alternatives at that moment.”
Apparently the birds are also massing in Houston’s intersections:
Just some confused birds operating on natural instinct, or sentient winged scouts preparing for a takeover? You decide, Houston.
And maybe brush up on your Hitchcock in the meantime.