kiln

(but Austinites sure love their freaky tourists)

There is this thing that happens in Austin in late August. The birds come home to roost. Our city is one stop on the annual migration path of hordes of purple martins. Flying south from Canada to winter in south America, they stop here to rest and refuel. Tens of thousands of them settle at night in the same small area of town. They start coming in at dusk, much like scores of southern children raised to be home by dark. There are so many of them that their resting weight breaks branches off trees and they leave slick puddles of excrement on the sidewalk, marking their presence like avian graffiti.

Locals gather waiting for them with the subdued sense of excitement reserved for hometown celebrities. At first, the heat and humidity make you wonder why you’re hanging around a shit-spattered parking lot with a crowd of oddballs waiting for a bunch of dumb birds to show up. Just about the time you decide to pack it in because there’s no way it’s gonna be worth so much physical discomfort, they start to arrive.

Just a few specks in the sky at first, their numbers slowly increase and the specks start to form a swirling mass that makes the darkening sky seem that much darker. The noise picks up accordingly, from the soft trill of a few birdcalls to the deafening roar of thousands. And then they start to descend. They come in fast and low over the crowd, only inches away from hitting the people gathered there to witness their return. You realize you are surrounded by thousands of birds and Hitchcock was right. In enough numbers, anything can be frightening.

Almost miraculously, the birds don’t hit anyone and as the light fades they start to settle in the surrounding trees. The volume of birdcalls seems to increase, but it’s soon to dark to see much of anything clearly. The shows over, it’s time to go home and let the travelers rest. Parents usher their children into waiting minivans and SUVs, birders pack up their cameras and notebooks, and people start to depart. Soon, the only thing left to see is a homeless woman panhandling the dwindling crowd.