Egret opponents armed and ready to blare in Tanglewood

Posted Monday, May. 13, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Topics: Fort Worth

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James Burr and his mother, Grace, are spending their spring evenings in Tanglewood sitting in their adjoining front yards bird-watching.

But they are not armed with binoculars and birding books as they wait in their lawn chairs for birds to land. Instead, they tote hand-held air horns with bright orange bells to scare them off.

Their target, and that of the constant popping sound from a propane cannon courtesy of Fort Worth’s code compliance department, is the egrets circling overhead.

Burr and his neighbors don’t want a repeat of what happened last summer when hundreds of egrets took up residence there. Egrets, protected by the federal 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, can’t be disturbed or removed while nesting.

In the past other cities including Carrollton and Dallas have had problems with the migratory birds, but their battles were successful because residents took steps to keep the egrets from returning by thinning out trees and scaring the birds with air horns and balloons.

The Burrs know firsthand how foul it can be. A home across the street had its driveway, steps and sidewalk covered in bird droppings last year.

The droppings turned the lawn and trees brown. The air was filled with flies and stench.

Last year when Burr’s grandchildren visited from Maryland, they couldn’t even play outside.

“It was a biblical plague,” James Burr said. “It ruined our summer and our opportunities to go outside.”

Action plan

After the egrets flew to their winter home last fall, the Tanglewood Neighborhood Association and the city mobilized.

They came up with a plan that they hope will lure the birds to a spot where they can build nests without disturbing people.

Trees in the Tanglewood neighborhood were trimmed to make the area less appealing to the birds, and neighbors were encouraged to buy noisemakers and balloons and to keep watch for the egrets.

Mike Camp, superintendent of Fort Worth’s animal care and control division, said that after the mild winter, everyone started watching for the egrets over a month ago.

At first, Camp and others thought the birds were not going to return, but more were spotted and the cannons were brought in to scare them off.

He said the cannons are driving the birds off, and many egrets are building nests along the nearby Trinity Trail, but residents aren’t taking any chances.

Tanglewood also organized a workshop earlier this spring and invited other neighborhoods to learn what to do if anyone spots an egret.

‘Fuzzy potential’

Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have said there are no plans to take the egrets off its list of protected species. Egrets made it on the list because they were once hunted for their feathers, which were used to decorate women’s hats.

When the birds are considered a nuisance, permits are available to remove them. But the idea, the officials say, is to develop a system in which humans and wildlife don’t conflict.

Conservation groups have complained, however, that more needs to be done to protect migratory birds. In July, the Wild Equity Institute filed an administrative petition with the Obama administration to provide full protection of migratory bird nests.

A analysis of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by the Crowell Moring law firm in Washington D.C., says that there is some confusion over how far the act should be applied when action, such a cutting brush and trees, may inadvertently cause a migratory bird death.

“Many commentators and companies are not comfortable with fuzzy potential MBTA liability and with reliance on uncertain prosecutorial discretion to avoid criminal liability for an otherwise-lawful land use,” the analysis says. It was written by five attorneys at the firm including Thomas R. Lundquist, who has litigated more than 50 cases involving the Endangered Species Act.

“… One potential solution is for Congress or the courts to construe the statute narrowly so that land-use activities not directed against wildlife cannot be violations,” they wrote. Another would be for the federal government to adopt industry-specific guidelines on best practices.

Chilly reception

Since March, James Burr has spent every evening watching and waiting in his yard. Some nights weren’t too pleasant when cold fronts came through, he said.

Some neighbors put netting over their trees and trimmed them to discourage the egrets from nesting, but Burr doesn’t want to spend the money.

He questioned why the government doesn’t provide assistance to homeowners when a protected species damages property.

“Who’s more important, you or the birds?” he said.

Rick Shepherd, a master naturalist who also lives in the Tanglewood area, said the problems people experienced last year aren’t as bad as those in Carrollton. Several blocks were affected there, but in Tanglewood, a few properties were invaded.

Although people in Tanglewood are working hard to make sure the birds don’t come back, Shepherd said he thinks they can’t let their guard down anytime soon and may have to keep watch all summer.

Bill Campbell, president of the neighborhood association, said it has an egret committee and neighbors can check the association’s website for updates and notifications if the birds are spotted.

“We don’t want the birds to get too used to coming here. We will probably have to do this [scare off the birds] every year,” he said.

Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696 Twitter: @fwstliz

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