Adrienne Cohen – Guest Contributor
Mar 9 2018
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It’s beginning to feel like spring here in North Texas. But, in addition to looking for buds and new green leaves on area trees, those who live in communities with large trees are urged to keep a watchful eye out for birds.

More specifically, it will soon be time in the greater DFW area for sleek, exotic-looking egrets and herons to make an appearance. The Yellow-Crowned Night Heron is typically the first, followed by the Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron and Snowy Egret. Although the distinctive long-legged birds are unusual and attractive, they are not “good neighbors.”

However, they are protected by international treaty and, once they take up residence, humans are powerless to evict the birds until they depart again in the fall.

Unwelcome Guests

“Scout birds” make their appearance, typically before mid-March, according to Adam Henry, an urban wildlife damage management specialist with the Texas Wildlife Services Program. Soon, additional birds arrive to begin building nests. Once they move into a neighborhood, the problems begin. The nest-building happens quickly, says Henry, so it is important to be watchful.

Mansfield, Carrollton, Arlington, Coppell, several Fort Worth neighborhoods and various suburban communities all have experienced similar invasions by the migratory herons; and all have action plans in place to discourage future rookeries within their jurisdictions.  

Henry routinely works with communities throughout the Metroplex to spread the word about the egrets and herons. Along with City of Burleson Director of Neighborhood Services Lisa Duello and Kim Peckler, representing Burleson Animal Services, he addressed a group of approximately 30 concerned citizens in late February, outlining legal measures to prevent the migratory birds from moving in.

Burleson first encountered the problem in 2015, noted Duello; after measures were taken in one neighborhood to discourage the birds’ return the following year, the migrating egret population simply moved on – to a neighborhood about a half-mile away.

Human residents can sustain thousands of dollars worth of damage during the five to six-month period they share their trees and yards with the invaders. It is also virtually impossible to spend any time out of doors during the season of the birds – because of the noise, the droppings and the odor. Gardening is a lost cause, and streets, sidewalks, patios, decks, roofs and automobiles are quickly covered with droppings and shed feathers. In addition, there is some concern that the birds can transmit disease.

An Ounce of Prevention

In some heavily treed Burleson neighborhoods, residents already hear the sounds of birds. It is not a welcome sign of spring. The sounds emanate from speakers installed on utility poles: They are loud, and they play at intervals all day and all night. They are hardly melodic. But they are a reminder that the imminent appearance of egrets constitutes a call to action.

The property damage and lifestyle disruption caused by the nesting birds is extensive.

The recorded sounds – said to represent distress calls – are designed to discourage migrating flocks from settling into nests.  

Residents are advised not to try to feed or approach the birds, and to report any sightings, particularly if the birds appear to be building nests.

There are ways to discourage nesting by the migrating species, according to city officials and wildlife management experts. They urge watchfulness and prevention. Some cities offer “starter packs” to residents, but additional deterrents are inexpensive. 

Henry suggests trimming trees and removing sticks and brush from the yard. The beginnings of nests can be destroyed by using a long pole, tennis balls or water hoses. But he also noted that birds are “master builders,” and lay eggs almost immediately. Once there are “active nests,” with eggs or young chicks, they are untouchable under the 1918 international migratory species protection regulations. It is illegal to kill the adults; animal control officers will deal with dead or injured birds, and will pick up hatchlings that fall from nests. 

Additional authorized deterrents include noisemakers, “scare eye” balloons or other moving objects (such as flagging, streamers or wind chimes) in trees, spotlights, whistles and water. Contrary to popular belief, the herons and egrets do not necessarily choose nesting habitats adjacent to water, and they will flee from water spray. Barking dogs may discourage the birds, but there are no natural predators.

The common white cattle egret is the worst offender and the most common invader; but other egrets coexist with the “cowbirds” in local trees, and all are protected. In Burleson last summer, there were thousands of the familiar white cattle egrets in a single two-block area.

Texas farmers and ranchers sometimes say the egrets help keep flies and ticks in check. But in most local communities there is not a cow or a field in sight, and the birds are not welcome.

If you want to see the egrets and herons “in the wild,” check with local Audubon chapters and centers or area nature preserves.