Once they move in, they’re essentially impossible to ward away. Significant amounts of excrement can cover city streets, sidewalks and cars, leading to long-lasting property damage and foul odors. Some Texans arm themselves with air horns, using loud noises to prevent nesting.
What causes all the ruckus each year? The arrival of egrets and herons in Texas, usually during February and March, can cause an array of headaches for homeowners, especially if the migratory birds decide to build nests in their trees and establish “rookeries,” where egrets can linger until October.
Over the course of 14 and a half weeks, Cynthia Buchanan discovered just how much time it took to keep egrets from nesting near her home in southwest Fort Worth. For four hours each night, she and fellow Wedgwood South residents sat outside to “defend” their trees, keeping an eye out for the tall, white birds and blasting air horns to prevent them from staying put.
“Once we got to organizing our crews, it actually started sounding like a war zone because there were air horns and sirens and all sorts of noises,” Buchanan said. “It definitely took a toll on my health. We had zero family life; we couldn’t do anything except for egrets.”
Fort Worth, like many North Texas cities, has spent years working with neighborhood associations to increase awareness about what the city can and can’t do to address issues caused by migratory birds. Egrets are federally protected, meaning that homeowners and city staff are forbidden from destroying nests once eggs are laid.
No city tax funds can be spent on private property, but animal control staff can pick up dead or injured birds, clean streets covered in bird poop and educate community members about how to prevent egrets from setting up shop, according to Chris Lirette, the city’s animal control supervisor.
During an interview earlier this year, Lirette said the problem began about 10 years ago, when egrets arrived in large numbers in west Fort Worth’s Tanglewood community.
“Ever since then, it’s been all about trying to keep them from nesting anywhere in the neighborhoods,” Lirette said. “Our biggest thing is educating people and trying to make sure that they take care of their trees, trimming them and making sure they don’t have old nests in the trees.”
Residents want more information, prevention
Matt Maxwell, a CandleRidge resident who has become a go-to resource for neighbors concerned about egrets, said city officials are working “overtime” to prevent the birds from causing issues in neighborhoods. To show their support for animal control staff, Maxwell and other residents hosted an appreciation dinner in June.
“We don’t hate the birds. We just don’t appreciate what they bring with them and we’d like them to find some other place that’s more conducive for them to live in,” Maxwell said. “We really can’t afford for them to live here.”
The number of nests in CandleRidge has greatly reduced compared to 2020, when it felt like egrets decided that the area was their new, permanent nesting site, Maxwell said. Last year, Fort Worth’s code compliance department obtained a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that allows for increased “nonlethal methods” to displace the presence of nuisance birds, according to NBC DFW.
But the problem has not been completely resolved, as one home in CandleRidge’s western section has become the site of a massive rookery, or a colony of breeding animals.
The home has been the site of intense cleanup efforts by city crews, who are coming at least three times per week to clear out excrement and dead birds, according to Anita Handy, who lives nearby.
After attending a meeting of her homeowners association in CandleRidge, Handy realized that many residents were coming with different sets of information about how to prevent egrets from moving in, and what city and federal officials can do to address the issue.
“I saw so much frustration from neighbors who didn’t understand any of it, and just didn’t know why (animal control) couldn’t come and cut down the tree and clean it up and take it away,” Handy said. “There were people who didn’t understand why others were making so much noise and disturbing their dogs and their sleep, but there was a purpose to it.”
Rather than “reinvent the wheel,” she contacted the office of the newly elected District 6 Councilman Jared Williams, who organized a town hall on egrets for Thursday night at 6 p.m. featuring animal control, code compliance and environmental services staff.
“We can be doing something proactive, not reactive, and make sure that this issue can be mitigated,” said Kendyll Locke, Williams’ district director. “Unfortunately the egrets are toward the end of their migratory season now, but we can definitely use this as a learning experience … to make sure that it doesn’t grow to the massive problem that it is now for that one home.”
What city, residents can do to prevent egret invasion
Public knowledge about egrets in Fort Worth is very uneven, according to Handy and Buchanan. Residents often call every department in the city with similar questions because they’re not sure where to turn for answers, Handy said.
“If we could channel all of them to one point, I know that would be so much more efficient,” she said. “With the town hall, I just want to see if we can get communication out so we can be better served by the staff there and so they don’t have to answer the same questions over and over.”
Homeowners associations also send out their own advice to residents looking for resources to handle egrets. This year, CandleRidge’s “battle plan” advised neighbors to trim trees to reduce the canopy by 30%, install bright shiny streamers or odd-looking balloons in trees, add water sprinklers in the upper branches and use noisy devices such as air cannons to scare egrets away.
Locke sees opportunities for better communication and coordination between city staff and neighborhood leaders, as well as the potential to set up a permanent bird sanctuary and rookery using land obtained through the city’s Open Space Conservation program.
“Obviously we’re not going to be able to move every single egret across Fort Worth, but how do we leverage what we have?” Locke said. “Open Space could play a very important role in this conversation, not just with egrets but with other migratory animals.”
Maxwell has been encouraged by the efforts in his neighborhood to prevent egrets from nesting. But he is concerned about the CandleRidge home that has become a breeding ground for migratory birds this year, and hopes Williams and city staff can find a way to help the homeowner avoid any health consequences from the birds’ excrement.
Animal control staff are also planning to introduce new technology next year, including high-tech drones with the ability to spot birds and eggs using infrared cameras, according to Maxwell. That kind of effort is necessary to prevent the damaging consequences of egret breeding in residential areas, he said.
“They burn your grass, they burn your trees, they burn your shrubbery,” Maxwell said. “We’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars per home and it’s on you to get it fixed … I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”