The rookery – Part 3

Humans seem inclined to lens the world through vision focused on self.  Thus becomes the agony of aloneness, separation from the world that nurtures us despite our intent to destroy it and all it births.  Too long have people scampered about in hurried endeavors to own, to acquire, to master.  And in response to our anthropocentric ways, too many lives have been brushed from the face of the planet that will never again be seen.

Long before sunrise on July 23, 1998, the city of Carrollton, Texas, began work on what it dubbed “Operation Remove Excrement.”  Huge industrial lights invaded the darkness at 4:00 AM and a motte at the city’s Josey Ranch Park came to life with the sound of bulldozers.  By 4:30 AM as resident Jack Laivins drove to work, the sky above the trees roiled with billowing smoke.  Upon closer inspection, though, he realized the smoke was actually thousands of heron and egret adults circling in the night sky above the municipal park.  Carrollton had decided to raze an active bird rookery while parents and offspring remained in the nests.

The official cost was staggering: several hundred birds killed, many hundreds more injured, thousands forced to abandon the area—most likewise abandoning their young, and an entire breeding territory decimated at the height of migratory bird nesting.  The city’s reason?  They had received “numerous complaints” about the noise and odor.  The town claimed it studied the area for several months, took its time in planning the action, and needed no permission to remove inconvenient birds. 

Acting lawfully, responsibly and humanely explains why the devastation took place during the overnight hours such that it would be complete before daybreak.  Unfortunately for Carrollton, it could never be completed before citizens noticed the dead bodies, the orphaned chicks, the wounded animals left in piles of rubble, and the panicked adults searching desperately for their children.  Three days later, hungry and parched birds were still being pulled from twisted and crushed debris, many with broken wings or legs, many more with neck or spine injuries, and some with limbs nearly severed.

The Josey Ranch Park rests on land donated by Don Josey, father of Melissa Gribble, a federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator.  The city’s sense of irony was fully intact.  They paid nearly $200,000 in rehabilitation costs and federal fines—an amount profoundly lacking under the circumstances.  And the public backlash reached international proportions as news of the incident spread.

The horror of Carrollton’s actions represents the worst of human society, a place where wildlife already pushed from most of its native habitat must face yet another harrowing obstacle course: trying to survive in those tiny plots of land still available whilst simultaneously hoping to go unnoticed by those who see such things as nuisances, inconveniences to be wiped from the planet’s surface.

Now leap forward to February 2009 at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center rookery in Dallas.

One-year-old little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) nesting for the first time as it transitions from the juvenile’s all-white plumage to the adult’s all-dark plumage (2009_05_17_019779)

After great egrets began arriving and building nests, maintenance staff decided to “landscape” around the tree grove that hosts a surprisingly diverse group of birds.  The school called it brush clearing.  Photos of the aftermath showed nests on the ground; saplings, snags and small trees felled; significant understory clearing; the pond wholly exposed to sunshine and human activity; and a lot of plant removal beneath and inside the drip line where birds actively roost.  Images also captured egrets wandering through a stark landscape that once hid them from prying eyes and predators.

Recently fledged male house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) perched in a tree (2009_05_17_019810)

“They didn’t know the birds were there.”  Thus constitutes the brevity of the university’s response when asked about the incident.  Given the birds fly in and out of the trees on wings that span nearly six feet/two meters, and they make a great deal of noise during the breeding and nesting season, they could hardly go unnoticed.  After all, even the children at the daycare center across the street already had noticed the birds, small kids intoxicated by the exotic magic of the area where flying giants and colorful creatures spend many months from late winter through early autumn—and where these mystical beings have done so for at least half a century.

Male common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) collecting insects for his chicks (2009_06_20_023983)

Many feared this represented a precursor to a Carrollton-like assault on the rookery.  Vocal citizens and organizations spoke up and the local media responded.  The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department got involved.  Yet I spent an insightful morning speaking to UT Southwestern administrators and walked away with an impression not of imminent doom but of palpable fear of bad press coupled with a sense of obligation and promise.

Little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) chicks still in the nest (2009_06_13_023108)

“It’s about the birds, not the people.”  No other statement from university officials struck me like that  one.  The UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas has “officially” hosted the rookery on campus grounds since at least 1966.  Circumstantial evidence suggests the rookery existed as far back as 1959 and anecdotal evidence indicates herons and egrets have nested in the area since at least 1938.  Regardless of the exact date, fifty years of the school’s own records stand as significant tribute to the longevity of this urban wildlife haven.

Recently fledged black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) perched in a tree (2009_06_20_023813)

Dr. Charles Sprague, the first president of the university, asked that the birds be allowed to use the area for as long as they chose to nest there, essentially requesting of UT Southwestern that they respect and protect the site ad infinitum.  The school agreed.  Perhaps their readiness to accept that challenge stemmed from “knowledgeable sources” who claimed the rookery would self-destruct within ten years due to the volume of guano and the impact it would have on soil acidity and flora.  Contrary to that prediction, susceptible plants died while a host of other plants thrived—and the rookery goes on.

Great egret (Ardea alba) chick peering down from the nest(2009_06_13_023179)

An ongoing grassroots effort hopes to convince the UT System Board of Regents and the Texas Legislature to grant official recognition and protection to the rookery.  UT Southwestern appears inclined to host the birds, even if as an act of tolerance only, and as state property and a state organization the campus cannot blindly destroy the area without putting Texas in the position of having wiped out a long-lived nesting site for protected birds.

Nevertheless, many agree more can and should be done, especially in light of the greatest threat the birds now face, a relentless and insidious foe whose unimaginable power is matched only by heartlessness.  This adversary is responsible for the death of a great many birds this year, and the villain has caused the failure and abandonment of more nests in the rookery than has ever been seen before.  Even nests with chicks have been left to suffer under the skeletal hand of this monster.  The attacker remains bent on destroying what little of nature remains unscathed by the spread of civilization.

The enemy is at the gates.  You will come face to face with the ghoul in the final part of this series.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] One-year-old little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) nesting for the first time as it transitions from the juvenile’s all-white plumage to the adult’s all-dark plumage

[2] Recently fledged male house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)

[3] Male common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) collecting insects for his chicks

[4] Little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) chicks still in the nest

[5] Recently fledged black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)

[6] Great egret (Ardea alba) chick peering down from the nest

[cross-posted to The Clade]

2 thoughts on “The rookery – Part 3”

  1. UT hire Carrollton’s folks to make them look stupid or did they do that all by themselves? That’s about like flying Airforce One over New York City, a dumb stunt that does nothing but show the public there really is no intelligent life in some places.

    The photos are stunning.

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