Alan Maccarone recently walked amid piles of tree trunks and limbs left by bulldozers that leveled several acres of towering trees in west Wichita.
Every spring and summer, thousands of egrets nested in those trees, to the delight of birdwatchers and the frustration of neighbors.
Looking from one end to the other, the Friends University biology professor sighed.
“There were easily 200 nests in this one row of trees, mostly cattle egrets. Last year there were probably 700 to 800 nests in the entire colony,” said Maccarone, harking back to times when white birds covered the trees like a freak summer snow.
Professionally, the rookery near 13th and Doris, not far south of the Sedgwick County Zoo, had helped Maccarone publish several papers in prestigious scientific journals. Personally, Maccarone and scores of wildlife watchers had enjoyed watching evening clouds of the white birds come and go from the area for about 20 years.
But from his yard just east of the leveled land where duplexes will soon appear, Terry Sawyer said he now sees hope for the future.
“Now maybe we’ll be able to enjoy being out in our yards in the evenings, to be able to have cook-outs if the birds are gone,” said Sawyer, who has lived in the area for about 30 years. “For probably the last 15 summers the noise and the smell just never went away. They were destroying the private property I’d worked so many years to enjoy. I’m not against the birds at all, I just think they need to go somewhere else.”
He hopes he’s done spending more than $1,000 annually trying to protect his yard from ruination.
Maccarone expects the first of the migrant birds that annually used the rookery to return to Wichita in a few weeks.
“We’ll see where they go and what they do, with about 90 percent of the rookery they had last year gone,” said the biologist.
Species in Kansas
Maccarone said the rookery had been at that location for about 20 years and hosts five species of birds. He said about 60 percent are cattle egrets, the 20-inch tall white bird often seen in open fields of short grass in the spring and summer. The remaining birds include little blue and black-crowned night herons, and snowy and great egrets.
According to Bob Gress, retired director of the Great Plains Nature Center and an accomplished bird photographer and author, the three species of egrets were still new to most Kansans in the mid-1990s.
He said cattle egrets weren’t commonly seen in the Wichita area until the mid-1980s, and that the birds weren’t even in North America until about 1950. The species, he said, flew across the Atlantic from Africa to South America, then spread northward. Populations of snowy, then great egrets, eventually expanded into central Kansas by the early 1990s.
At the west Wichita rookery, the birds gathered to build nests of pencil-sized sticks in the forks of Siberian elm trees. Problems began when suburban Wichita met downtown Egretville.
“This was all mostly undeveloped when this colony was started, and really got going,” Maccarone said. “It actually started by 11th and Doris, but they started building houses over there so the birds came north. Then, this area started getting developed.”
That was about the time the colony was at its peak of around 1,000 nests. Each, according to Maccarone, was home to two adults and two to four chicks.
Property owners’ concerns
Terry Sawyer lived in the area pre-rookery, and said the past 15 years “have not been good, at all.”
He said he’s tired of dealing with the smell of waste and the dead birds that come with any high-concentration of wildlife. The noise of the calling birds, he said, never seems to stop, and the “white splash” of bird droppings can all but cover lawn ornaments, roofs and vehicles left outside.
“It’s like you become a prisoner in your own house, and the property you’ve worked all your life for is getting destroyed,” he said. “Once these birds start nesting in trees, in these numbers, the trees die. You don’t just go and replace a 30 or 40 year old tree.” Sawyer said the last several years he’s had the secondary branches trimmed from the trees in his yard, to discourage nesting.
“I’m really wanting to save those old trees,” he said. “But it’s been costing me several thousand dollars a year.” He said he was sure the rookery was hurting the value of his home, too.
The problem was at its worst several years ago, according to Maccarone and Sawyer, during two years of severe drought when mature birds and chicks were dying because of exposure to immense heat, starvation and thirst. On any day hundreds wandered the area searching for food, water or shade.
Monte Brunner cares for his elderly mother’s home in the area and said those summers are what really turned him against the birds.
“I’d come over every few days to check on Mom and have to pick up 10 to 15 dead birds in her yard, and they’d be smelly and crawling with maggots,” he said. “We went on a two-week vacation, and when we came back there were so many dead birds in her yard, I grabbed a big trash bag and had it filled with dead, disgusting birds within a few minutes.” Maccarone said Doris Street was dotted with the smashed carcasses of birds hit by cars.
Looking over the cleared area last week, Brunner said he was glad to see the trees go, and hoped the rookery moved on.
Traci Terrill, who lives across the street from Brunner’s mother and for years was a huge supporter of the rookery, said it was time for things to change.
Initially her family saw the rookery as a positive when they bought adjoining lots and built a house there in 2007. Many of the rookery trees were on their property. So much nature, so close, she thought, would be a good experience for her children.
For several years they tried to deal with the associated problems the best they could. Young chicks were often seen on their patio and could be so common in the backyard they couldn’t mow their lawn. Neighbors complained, as did the city when the lots and trees fell into disrepair.
“It was to where everybody around here really hated the birds,” she said. “It was a mess. Something had to be done.”
That “something” happened last fall when developer Jay Russell announced his company was clearing nearby vacant property and would put up a duplex complex. While some protested the building of duplexes instead of single-family dwellings, Russell estimated 95 percent of the people he dealt with, including city officials, wanted the birds gone.
Charlie Cope, a Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism district biologist in Wichita, said federal law states it’s legal to remove such nesting habitat from private property as long as it is done when no birds are actively nesting. None of the affected species are listed as threatened or endangered.
Last fall Russell’s crews cleared the land for the duplexes. Terrill had them remove the trees from her lots, too.
“I guess there always was a certain inevitability about it,” Maccarone said, of the trees going away.
How birds will react
Somewhere far to the south, possibly Mexico and beyond, a thousand or so birds are beginning to get the innate itchings to begin their northward migrations, something Maccarone said will probably happen in about four weeks.
Chances are they’ll think they’re headed to the same grove of elms where they probably fledged. When they arrive, it won’t be there. Nobody is sure how the birds will react.
Sawyer hopes they re-establish a healthy rookery in a remote part of the countryside, so no other homeowners have to endure what he has through the years.
“Chances are they’ll go somewhere else,” Gress said, “where someone else won’t be particularly nuts to have them around.”
Wondering aloud as he walked amid the crumpled trees, Maccarone theorized the birds might try to re-establish a smaller colony in the few trees left in the area, under more compact conditions.
Sometime in early March he’ll start making regular trips to the area, checking to see how returning egrets and herons adjust to the changes in the landscape.
“I’m not sure what to expect,” he said, “but I’ll study it and maybe I can get another (scientific) paper out of that.”
Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or email@example.com.