Texas neighborhood overrun by protected birds that create mess and stench

Fort Worth Star-TelegramAugust 6, 2012 

FORT WORTH -- Tree branches and bushes are stripped almost bare of their summer foliage, and big piles of bird droppings have turned parts of yards a dirty white, residents say.

The usually green lawns on Tanglewood Trail have turned brown and are dying because of the waste, and homeowners are using professional cleaners to power-wash the bird scat from their driveways and sidewalks.

Not helping the situation is the street sweeper being used by workers putting in a new water line -- when the machine passes by the homes it churns up a billowing, stinky cloud that makes it difficult to breathe.

So what kind of fowl is creating this foul situation and why can't property owners -- or the city of Fort Worth -- do something about it?

Egrets are to blame for the mess, and since they are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act -- which means they cannot be disturbed or removed while nesting -- they are a big reason people in three houses on the street aren't spending time outdoors.

Richard Steed, who lives in the 3300 block of Tanglewood Trail, doesn't spend much time at home these days. He is staying at his construction company's office or planning out-of-town trips to escape the noise and the stench of the egrets' droppings.

In fact, Steed rarely uses his front door, choosing instead to go out of the back door because the birds are not nesting in that part of his yard.

"It's just insane. It's just awful," Steed said, describing life at his home since the birds arrived in early May.

Nick McGarrey, who lives nearby, heard about the egrets from a friend and wanted to see the havoc they caused. When he drove by the homes he couldn't believe what he saw.

"I see these birds flying over my house, and people can't do anything," McGarrey said, adding that he is afraid the birds will migrate to his neighborhood when they return to nest in the spring. "It was shocking; I've never seen anything like it."

City response

City officials say they are doing what they can to help, but their hands are tied because of the law protecting the birds.

Diane Covey, a spokeswoman for the city's code compliance department, said that a neighborhood resident notified the city about the egrets and that code enforcement employees "canvassed" nearby streets, going door to door. The city also held neighborhood meetings, she said.

"The city has been working diligently with the residents in the neighborhoods," she said. "We certainly understand and share their concerns."

Covey said the city is doing what it can without disturbing the egrets. Animal control is picking up injured birds, and the solid waste department is removing the dead ones, she said.

Mayor Betsy Price and U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, are also trying to make a bad situation a little more tolerable.

Price, who does not live far from the neighborhood, said she rides her bicycle frequently there and saw them flying around. A friend told her of the problem on Tanglewood Trail.

"It's a disaster, and it smells terrible," Price said.

Price said it is important for the city to help the residents and to work with them once the birds have left their nests. She said egrets have been found in commercial areas of the city, but this is the first time they have chosen a neighborhood.

Matt Leffingwell, a spokesman for Granger's office, said she is helping the residents work with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to get permits to remove the nests.

Problems elsewhere

Other cities including Carrollton and Dallas have had problems with the migratory birds, but they were successful in eliminating the problem because residents took steps to keep the birds from returning, thinning out trees and shrubs and scaring the birds with air horns and balloons.

Alecia King, a spokeswoman for the migratory bird program in the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the egrets have been a protected species since 1918 under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. There are no plans to take the birds off the list, she said.

"The idea is that we are protecting birds so that we can conserve them for this generation and future generations," she said. Egrets were once hunted for their feathers, which were used to decorate women's hats.

But when birds are considered an issue or nuisance, people can apply for permits to remove them, she said.

"We want to make sure humans and wildlife don't conflict," King said.

Steed said he is trying his best to coexist with his feathered neighbors, but since the birds built around 100 nests, he has an expensive mess on his hands. He worries that he will lose his stately magnolia tree because the leaves are covered with the egrets' "calling cards."

He also worries about losing his yard and having to replace shrubs and grass.

Then there is the problem of removing the nests once the egrets leave in the fall.

"It's definitely not home sweet home," he said.

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