Scores of egrets and blue herons were killed or injured in a suburban Houston neighborhood recently after a tree trimming service destroyed their protected nests, according to Texas Game Wardens.
At least 84 of the birds, mostly hatchlings and fledglings not yet ready to fly, fell to the ground and died as workers cleared trees from a lot in Towne Lake, a developing neighborhood in Cypress, roughly 27 miles northwest of Houston.
“It’s a historical nesting site for these birds,” Game Warden Jamie Hill told McClatchy News in a phone interview. “They’ve been returning to that spot for years to nest.”
Great egrets are not a protected species, however, their nests are, according to Hill. By law, once nesting season begins, nesting grounds cannot be harassed, and certainly not destroyed.
“All the neighbors are fully aware of the birds,” Hill said, and that’s why she got a call on Saturday, May 14, when a team of workers suddenly showed up on the lot with heavy equipment.
It took Hill less than an hour to arrive, but the six workers hadn’t wasted any time.
Broken eggs and dead and injured baby birds littered the lot, Hill said. Inside of trash bags filled by the workers, she found even more.
It was hard to tell how many trees had been cut down, Hill said, there were fallen limbs “everywhere,” and she had more important things to look for.
“My eyes were just so focused on the ground and trying not to step on birds that were fighting for their lives,” she said.
The landowner who bought the lot hired the tree service to come out and clear the trees, Hill said. She has filed citations against both the company and the landowner, which could mean thousands of dollars in fines.
Whether those consequences will be enough to prevent further attempts to clear the lot before nesting season is over, Hill isn’t sure.
It’s particularly concerning, because there’s not just a small handful of nests on the lot, Hill said, it’s the main egret rookery in the area.
“On that particular lot, yes there’s still plenty of birds and nests there, and still plenty of trees that are still standing, so it really just depends on what the landowner is going to do next,” she said.
In total, 138 birds were either killed, injured, or otherwise disturbed, according to Hill.
Thankfully, some birds survived, she said. The lucky ones were mostly fledglings, not old enough to fly, but able to flap enough to slow their fall to an extent.
With the help of the Houston SPCA’s Wildlife Center of Texas, 71 birds were rescued from the lot, Hill said. Though around 17 were later euthanized due to the severity of their injuries.
“They went outside of their normal job duties and met me on site with a rescue van and supplies and boxes. Otherwise the job would have been pretty overwhelming,” she said. “They were instrumental in making the rescue happen.”
The birds taken in by the SPCA are being monitored and cared for, and will remain at the wildlife center “until they can be released back to the wild,” the Houston SPCA said in a release.
This entire situation could have been avoided if the landowner had waited until the end of nesting season, according to Hill.
For egrets, nesting season generally starts in March and ends in late October.
“If the tree cutting happened in, let’s say December, there would still be birds in those trees, adult egrets in those trees, but the adult birds could just fly off and there would be no issue there,” she said.
While nesting season is over, it is also legal to use methods to deter the birds from coming back, such as pyrotechnics, fake owls, or piping in predatory bird noises.
“Birds don’t see property lines,” Hill said. “We have to live amongst them.”