SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
City of Mudville, California v. The Great-tailed Grackle
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
[June 16, 2009]
JUSTICE SOOTHER delivered the opinion of the Court.
The town of Mudville, California, allows its citizens to bring private law suits to stop public nuisances. The municipal ordinance defines a public nuisance as “Anything which is . . . indecent or offensive to the senses.” The nuisance must, “Affect at the same time an entire community or neighborhood, or any considerable number of persons.”
Mildred Thoroughgood brought this lawsuit, demanding that the authorities of Mudville do something about the Great-tailed Grackles which live there. The grackles, Ms. Thoroughgood claims, are “offensive to the senses” and must be eradicated. A judge in Mudville agreed with her and ordered the birds extirpated.
The birds appeal, asking this Court to reverse the judgment below and dismiss the case.
Great-tailed Grackles are large birds with, as the name implies, large tails. They live mainly west of the Mississippi River of the United States and often dwell together in large flocks, not unlike humans. Foraging for seeds and insects, they go about making their living in fields and towns throughout the American Southwest and Southern California.
But, according to Ms. Thoroughgood, they make many unpleasant sounds. Indeed one authority writes, “Song a series of loud, unpleasant noises: mechanical rattles, sliding tinny whistles, harsh rustling sounds, and sharp hard notes.” (Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, at 443)
No evidence to the contrary appearing, this Court accepts as fact that they make unpleasant sounds. We also note that even the renowned Cornell University refers to the poor birds as a “pest species.”
If that were all the evidence, we might be inclined to uphold the decision of the Mudville court that grackles are a pain and should be eliminated. But that was not all the evidence.
The grackle population appears to grow with the human population. This makes Great-tailed Grackles, like pigeons, an inevitable by-product of the rapid growth of the American West. Like people, grackles find irrigation and urbanization beneficial. The only way to get rid of them is to get rid of the people.
Grackles are good parents too. Most of the parental duties, it is true, are left to the females but males fiercely defend their nestlings and fledglings. Interestingly, more females survive the first year than males. That may explain the transient nature of their pair bonds and the flamboyant mating behavior of the males. Nobody knows for certain how long they live, but one banded male lived for twelve years.
Finally, we find the testimony at trial of The Fat Finch persuasive. Those people have a female Great-tailed Grackle living in their yard which has lost a leg. This one-legged female is successfully rearing offspring. The fledglings don’t seem to care that she has only one leg and neither does she. Such tenacity in the face of adversity should be rewarded, not punished.
The law of nuisance, as William Prosser once wrote, is an “impenetrable jungle.” Nonetheless, we discern in this case application of that old legal maxim, “The law disregards grackles.”
Accordingly, we reverse the decision below and order the case dismissed. Let the grackles go.
JUSTICE SCALITO, dissenting.
I hate nature. I never go outside if I can avoid it. I used to play tennis outdoors but found the unfiltered air disagreeable. Moreover, I’ve never been west of the Mississippi and don’t intend to go. Therefore, I am completely disinterested in the fate of Great-tailed Grackles.
But, because I hate nature and grackles are a part of nature, I hate grackles. If the government wants to eradicate them I find nothing in my copy of the Constitution preventing it.