The egrets have landed, again.
But this year, for the homeowners near the Wilshire Boulevard/Gaye Drive intersection in Arlington, the visit is an invasion. As many as 200 of the lanky white birds are flopping awkwardly in the tops of the towering trees, roosting, squawking, falling out of nests.
And, oh, the bird droppings.
Norma Crader, 76, and her neighbor, Betty Robertson, 84, have taken the brunt of the abuse. Rarely venturing from their covered porches, they are figurines in a nasty snow globe of falling white poop and plumage, with the relief of the birds’ departure still months away.
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“I’ve lived here for 62 years,” Robertson said. “And believe you me, I’ve never had the trouble I’ve had with these freakin’ birds. The bird poop — my walk is covered in it. I can’t even get in my house. It’s all over my redwood deck. I can wash it all off, then get up the next morning and it’s already started again.”
And there’s no recourse, not this season. Once the birds — cattle egrets, snowy egrets and a handful of birds known as little blue herons, according to the city — start nesting and producing eggs, they’re protected from harassment under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
“You can’t do anything,” said Crader, who moved into her home just two months ago, well before the egrets moved into her trees. “Once they start nesting, that’s it until October.”
It’s not pleasant. It’s smelly and bad and I didn’t know there could be that many birds all in one spot.
Norma Crader, resident
To be fair, the egrets paid dearly as a species to enjoy their century of special protection. They were hunted to the brink of extinction by the early 20th century for their plumage, a demand driven by the women’s hatmaking industry.
In 1886, snowy egret plumes developed during breeding season were worth $32 per ounce, twice the value of gold at that time, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The migratory bird law actually took effect in 1916, making it illegal to take, possess or sell any migratory bird “or any parts, nests or eggs of such a bird” without a permit. More than 800 birds are currently on the list of protected species.
Experts have put the snowy egret’s population at around 1.3 million.
“They made a big comeback,” said Michael Francis, president of the Fort Worth Audubon Society, a local chapter of the nonprofit wildlife conservation organization.
Though an egret is the national group’s symbol, Francis has mixed feelings about them.
“Those birds are so nasty,” Francis said, expressing sympathy for the Wilshire neighborhood. “You’re supposed to leave them alone. But watch for them next year, and just deter them any way you can, short of shooting them.”
$32 Value of an ounce of snowy egret plumage in 1886, twice the value of gold at the time.
Trimming trees, making loud noises and other tactics are fair game for next year, before the reproductive ritual begins anew. Last year in the Wilshire neighborhood, a few blocks south of Randol Mill Road and east of Fielder Road, there were far fewer feathered visitors, and they were gone in a few weeks, said residents and Hien Tran, the neighborhood postal carrier.
“I don’t know why so long this year,” Tran said. “I walk here every day. They have pooped on my head.”
Also bad, he noted, is the smell. It’s strong, resembling a musty, rarely maintained livestock barn, and it reaches well beyond the clustered nests, or the rookery, hovering over the handful of homes.
But the odor is more than feces. The egrets are fishers, and they feed their young by regurgitating partially digested fish and frogs and the occasional mouse into their beaks. But they often miss their target, and the pungent liquid and parts dribble through the nests to the ground, said Ray Rentschler, animal services field operations administrator.
And infants are frequently falling from their rickety nests to their deaths, where some have rotted. But Crader and Robertson say the animal services crew has been diligent about picking up the dead, as well as the juveniles that survive the fall and end up walking aimlessly through the neighborhood.
Those youngsters are taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center to be cared for until they’re old enough to be released on their own. The two women search their yards daily and call the city when they find dead ones. Which is usually daily, Rentschler said.
By Thursday, he and his people had collected 50-60 dead birds and 49 surviving juveniles almost exclusively from the Crader and Robertson properties. The city had to get a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just to lay hands on the young egrets.
“That rookery will continue to grow,” Rentschler said. “But next year we have a plan.”
Although Renschler calls the Wilshire rookery “the big one” going on in Arlington this year, massive egret roosting in North Texas neighborhoods is not an uncommon problem.
Hundreds settled into the Tanglewood neighborhood in Fort Worth in 2012, and almost immediately it was too late for residents to respond. But the next year, they had trees trimmed and were lying in wait with a variety of noisemakers and other hazing tactics.
In July 1998, the city of Carrollton notoriously demonstrated the wrong way to handle an egret problem, launching a predawn bulldozer assault — “Operation Remove Excrement” — on a large nesting site of egrets and other migratory birds.
More than 300 birds were killed, sparking a public outcry, a federal investigation, fines against the city and suspensions of three city officials who planned the operation. Plus the city had to pay for the treatment and relocation of hundreds of injured birds, a cost reported at more than $100,000.
We’re making it so it’s not a good habitat for them to show up.
Ray Rentschler, Arlington animal services field operations administrator
Officials of animal services, city parks and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture met with Wilshire neighbors to discuss ways of creating “aversive conditions, or hazing” next year, Rentschler said. Tools could include air horns, loud bells, propane cannons and reflective streamers and “scare-eye” balloons to hang in the trees.
The city will put together a package of some of those items for the neighborhood. Also, the neighbors have discussed hiring a tree trimmer to create wider spaces between branches to make nest building more difficult. Rentschler recommends tree canopies be reduced by about 30 percent.
“We’re making it so it’s not a good habitat for them to show up,” he said.
Also, he recommends that the neighbors stay on the lookout for a handful of early birds that could begin arriving about the first of February, ahead of the flock. Rentschler said he will be sending patrols through the neighborhood at least once a day, but residents keeping alert will be key because those birds are more active at night, he said.
“The first ones that come in are usually going to be the yellow crown night heron and the black crown night heron,” he said, emphasizing that’s when the hazing needs to start. “Those are the scout birds. They’re scouting it out. And then the other birds follow.”