Kong didn’t know it yet, but on the morning of May 15, as she sat demurely on the damp back lawn of a home in North Austin’s Wooten neighborhood, true love was on the way. Her orblike body was pocked with teeth marks, her yellow felt stained with slobber. Her expression was as implacable as the Mona Lisa’s. It wouldn’t be long now before she was scooped up and tossed unceremoniously in the trash, depleted and forgotten and cruelly unloved. Kong was mulling this over when she saw a flash of iridescent purple and black in the maple tree above her, followed by a shrieking “readle-eak” that could only mean “I’m here, my love. I’m here for you at last.”
Meanwhile, inside the home, Austin psychotherapist Grace Gould was conducting a virtual therapy session with a patient. Throughout the session, she heard what seemed to be a shrill birdsong in the backyard. When the call was over, Gould peeked out a back window to see what was making all the racket. What she saw amazed her. Gould saw a male great-tailed grackle flying down to a tennis ball she’d purchased in a three-pack from a local Target six months prior; it was a chew toy for her Great Dane, Dolly Parton. Once on the ground, the grackle lit into an elaborate dance around the ball, hollering a cacophony of piercing cries. It concluded the act by landing on the ball and . . . gyrating. After a few minutes, the bird went away. Gould figured it would stay gone.
It didn’t. Later that day the grackle was back. Just like before, it swooped down, danced round, and got busy. The next day, the same thing. And the next day. And the next. Gould found it entertaining at first—after all, no one expects to bear witness to a bird courting a tennis ball—but then she wondered why the grackle had taken such a shine to an inanimate object. She was getting concerned about the critter’s well-being too. “I was starting to get kind of worried about him,” Gould said. She tried removing the tennis ball to see if the grackle would lose interest, but “he lost his mind,” so she put it back. Gould, an expert on human behavior, was baffled by the bird. She took to the internet for advice.
On May 26, she asked the Austin community on Reddit what it thought of the burlesque bird show that was occurring in her backyard every few minutes. Her post blew up. “We all want to see how this beautiful romance unfolds,” one user said. Another commenter made a suggestion to “add googly eyes to the tennis ball. See what happens next.” The internet community demanded more documentation of the event—photos and video—for science, of course. Gould delivered. She asked her boyfriend, who has a GoPro, to hide the camera in a nearby shrub on Memorial Day so they could get a courtside seat to the action. The footage was revealing, to say the least. “It’s basically been Brazzers in my backyard for the last few weeks,” Gould told the internet message board. Appropriately, fans named the grackle Baller.
Ever the scientist, Gould began searching for an expert to explain the phenomenon. She found one in Joe Poston, a professor of biology at Catawba College, in North Carolina. He informed her that this behavior has been seen in grackles before. “Believe it or not,” he wrote via email, “the closely-related Boat-tailed Grackle has been observed trying to mate with a tennis ball. And a clump of dirt. And a flower on a magnolia tree! (Three different males were involved.)” He pointed her to the work of a colleague, who has previously researched the behavior, known as “redirected copulation.” One explanation is that Baller is simply too young to woo potential mates of his own kind—those opportunities may be going to older, more dominant males. This may have pushed Baller into Gould’s backyard, where the line between lovebird and lustbird has been irrevocably crossed.
Gould’s predicament opened a floodgate of grackle–and–tennis ball–related content on Reddit. One user posted a video depicting an Austin grackle giving a similar treatment to a champagne cork. Another commenter wondered if there was a shortage of female grackles. “Has something happened, turning some of the male grackles into incels?” they wondered. Another user asked for suggestions on “solicited places to meet tennis balls in Austin.” Someone even designed a logo featuring the bird and his ball.
Moreover, the spotlight on Baller led to an outpouring of support for grackles, a bird some Texans love to hate. Grackles draw ire for their abundance; their loud, grating calls; and their well-earned reputation for leaving their mark on any vehicle that sits in an H-E-B parking lot for longer than a half hour. This magazine’s favorite columnist once described them as “a species about which the Texanist can find nothing nice to say.”
But you have to hand it to the grackle, a stubborn and clever creature that has found ways to thrive as humans have encroached on its territory. The oldest known grackle lived to an impressive 23 years. The species has evolved to eat almost anything, from grain in farmers’ fields to tortilla chips swiped from your lunch. Grackles like to trail behind lawn mowers for an easy meal, picking off bugs in the newly cut grass. Another example of grackle ingenuity: “anting,” a behavior in which the bird visits ant mounds so that the bugs will crawl on its wings and secrete formic acid, a substance that kills pests living in the bird’s feathers. (No word on if Baller tries these activities when he’s not shagging his tennis ball.)
Word of Baller and Kong’s tryst reached Caley Zuzula, a biologist and program manager at the Travis Audubon Society. “This is actually the first time I’ve ever heard of a grackle being so enamored with an inanimate object,” she said. Zuzula is a self-professed grackle superfan; she would be happy if the grackle replaced the northern mockingbird as the official state bird of Texas. She’s especially fond of the grackle’s over-the-top mating dance, which Baller has so tirelessly demonstrated to his beloved tennis ball. “They’ll put their beak up in the air and walk around. Then they’ll puff out their wings and make their tail kind of go up into a V shape. They start making this crazy noise, and they’ll chase around females while they’re doing this,” she said. Zuzula said grackles aren’t usually monogamous birds—they can have three or four mates at a time. But it appears that Baller only has eyes for Kong.
When I reached Gould by phone last week, Baller showed no signs of slowing down. In fact, he was in her backyard while we spoke. “There he is,” she said. “He drops in and checks on [Kong] and then hops back up. And then sometimes he does the full song and dance. He comes every three to five minutes during the day.” Dolly Parton, the Great Dane, appears to have lost all interest in the ball now, as if there’s a “force field” around it, Gould said.
Now that Gould has gotten a satisfactory explanation for Baller’s behavior, she’s begun pondering why folks became so entranced by the saga. Perhaps we see in Baller a reflection of ourselves: how we can be governed by our basest desires and uncontrollable impulses, how we can work so hard to obtain the unobtainable. “When humans are reminded of the absurdity of their predicament, it pulls you into the present and it makes you just appreciate that this is all kind of ridiculous,” she said. Gould has even begun incorporating the story into her therapy sessions. “I’ve started using this as an analogy, like, ‘You know, you just keep going back to that tennis ball and nothing changes. So what are you gonna do about it?’ ” Gould said. “They’ve all enjoyed the joke a little bit.”
You can read into this all you want—you can overthink it to death. But at its core, this is a love story as steadfast and straightforward as anything penned by William Shakespeare or sung by Willie Nelson. And that’s the true beauty of the tale of Baller and Kong. In an increasingly complicated world, sometimes things simply are what they are. We can all find some comfort in that. “It’s just a grackle in love with a tennis ball,” Gould said. “It’s pretty, pretty simple.”
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