Last spring, I photographed egrets and herons as part of my regular routine, checking for injured chicks at an urban rookery. It turned out that a number of us, unbeknownst to each other at the time, were stopping by the location several times a week to look for babies who’d accidentally plummeted from the branches. It wasn’t an organized effort but rather a haphazard mix of good intentions in a newly established bird colony.
The colony was in a single tree, in an urban parking lot adjacent to a Starbucks. I was told it was a coral tree although I never saw it in bloom. It was thick with cover, shielding a maze of branches that made it a perfect tree for a bustling rookery. The foliage was so dense that even these sizable birds could duck under the leaves and disappear from view.
But, there was also a lot of cement below. Before they can fly, heron and egret chicks, gangly and clumsy, sometimes tip over the side of the nest or miss a step on a branch, then tumble down through the twigs. Although baby birds of many other species can be returned to their nests, herons and egrets are born into big colonies where it’s near impossible to reunite the babies with their proper parents. So the recourse, if they cannot yet fly, is to have them checked for fractures then raised at a wildlife hospital.
Over many weeks, I drove a number of young Snowy Egrets to the wildlife center, along with the little Black-crowned Night Heron pictured above. The majority of babies were luckier than these, and grew up in the tree without incident.
I was frazzled and over-extended at the time, and I admit to huge relief when the birds finally grew up and embarked on their proper journeys in the muddy shallows of the marsh. But, I was also looking forward to their return this spring, to witness yet another boisterous colony survive and thrive out of context, on the urban grid.
When I drove by for the first time last week, however, this is what I saw:
Although I suspected this was done to shut out the birds, I contacted the one person I knew who’d have the true story. With heartache in her words, she confirmed for me that the property owners pruned the tree in response to complaints about noise and smell from egrets. They chainsawed away the welcome mat for the birds who’d likely be returning this spring.
Earlier on that same day, I came upon some aggressively-cut palm trees that had long served as a roost for wild parrots. It was a double whopper of a visual — two stark, leafless symbols of human stinginess at the expense of herons, egrets and parrots.
Snowy Egrets do sometimes change nesting locations, but they also show loyalty to the same sites year after year. This tree was actually an emergency roost for them after their previous habitat was razed for the same reasons: residents in a housing development complained. So, they were evicted from one home, found another, and now face the same conundrum of locating a safe place to raise their babies.
The birds who return, the ones who follow their instincts and urges toward where they were born or where they nurtured their chicks, will find this skeleton of a sanctuary. I don’t know what they think at that point. Before the collective will to move on takes over, do they experience a momentary shock? Grief? Panic? Life in the wild is so precarious as to demand practicality. They always readjust and reformulate, they have to. But I wonder what their emotional experience is, in that short interlude between hope and hard realization. In my old nature blog, I wrote about another heron colony destroyed then rebuilt in Seattle, and the inspiration I derived from the birds’ resilience.
On a juridical level, no laws were broken here. The tree was cut before nests were ever built. As a contrast, there were two recent cases, one in Newport Beach and one in Oakland, California where birds were intentionally cut from trees along with their nests, some of them killed. So, this was at least done within the legal parameters of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
I find it sad, however, that with the pressures these animals face because of our continuing encroachment, we can’t find some semblance of tolerance for their coexistence among us. It’s no secret that egrets and herons are noisy, and in big numbers, these fish-eaters produce noticeable waste. It’s also understandable that people, especially those accustomed to the sterility of wildlife-free developments, would find this combination difficult to live with.
But there are situations like this one, where the location was commercial, not too populated, and removed from homes. It seemed to harm no one, and, in fact, brought interested photographers and animal lovers to observe this spectacle of life up close. I made a point to patronize the local businesses when I was there, and talked to many people, including the local security guards, who were noticing these birds for the first time in their lives. It became a meeting and educational point for many people too often rushing through, too often removed from these organic processes.
The property owners appear blind to the intrinsic value of this community and this rookery that arose spontaneously and so alive, from the roots and limbs of this tree. It was a cacophony to be sure, but a cacophony of creation and existence, and therefore, meaning. I wish there had been an opportunity to convince them of that value — some advance notice to make a plea for what this coral tree brought to the birds themselves, and to the many people who found themselves transformed by the bundles of feathers bursting from a lone tree in the middle of a parking lot.
I will miss seeing heron and egret families growing up there this year. I hope they find a place devoid of cars and interlopers and real estate valuations, a place they can finally call their own in perpetuity. They are entitled to that, whether or not we humans grant them the rights they are due.
Bird-Friendly Tree Trimming
Bird-Friendly Tree Trimming – Los Angeles Audubon
Tree Care and Bird Safety – Golden Gate Audubon