Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bad Year for Great Egrets

It has been three months since my last message and a summer unusually filled with travel. How the time goes!

Normally some egrets would still be scouring the grass for grasshoppers, and from past experience, we would have expected this to continue till mid-October. Not so this year, but the news are good.

Despite the impossibly hot summer and a much greater number of birds in the rookery, which included, in order of abundance, the cattle egrets, great egrets, little-blue herons, ibises, snowy egrets, and night herons, we rescued only about 60 distressed fledglings, compared to several hundreds in previous years. The large majority of the birds who needed our help this year were the great egrets, whereas in previous years these were the cattle egrets. Though there were about 10 times as many cattle egrets in the rookery as there were great egrets, we found only one cattle egret who needed rescuing. We did also rescue a couple of little-blue herons and one night heron. The rest were all great egrets.

Why this change? Normally, the great egrets arrive here first, around Valentine's Day. They were about a week early this year. In addition, they abbreviated their courtship and immediately set about mending their nests and laying their eggs. The cattle egrets and others would normally have come in April, when the great-egret chicks were about to hatch. Usually it is a quite festive atmosphere, almost as if the new arrivals come to celebrate the hatchlings. This year, though, the second crew of birds arrived about a month earlier than usual and just as urgently went about the business of nesting. By mid-August, i.e. about two months earlier than in previous years, all the birds and their juveniles were gone -- mostly south, some flying as far as Brazil and Argentina. We did suspect from their behavior that trouble might be coming to the Gulf.

While attending a wedding this weekend, we could not help but marvel at how much a bride's veil and train resemble a snowy egret's courtship plumage. True: being hopeless birders, we are unusually well disposed to notice how much our culture is influenced by the customs of other animals, and our language too, but this is rather fun.

Did you know, for example, that the word "congruence", i.e. to come together, to agree, has its root in "Grus", the genus name for many cranes, including the Sandhills (Grus canadensis). What is more congruent than a flight of cranes?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Bird Rescue and Human Health

So far this season, we have rescued about 20 great egrets, whereas in previous years, we only found about 2-5 who needed help. One of the main reasons for this increase is that, all around the areas surrounding Dallas, rookeries are being destroyed to make way for condos. To make matters worse, the UTSW rookery lost at least 5 large cedar elms to strong wind storms in the last year. Consequently, the birds are roosting nearer to each other and to the ground, and the crowding and greater proximity to predators are probably contributing to their injuries.

Today, we rescued the first two cattle-egret fledglings. There are about 10 times as many cattle egrets in the rookery as there are great egrets. So we expect the next few weeks to be busy ones. In summer 2006, we rescued about 200 birds: mostly cattle egrets. The number might well double this year if the heat and dryness continue.

Several of you have suggested that we should try to publicize the bird's lot in local papers so as to recruit others to help us. I have not done this because currently, on paper at least, our group numbers 15. With this many on board, if everybody were to give the birds even half an hour per week, the work per person should become trivial.

Also, success is what begets success.

During the last two weeks, we often made two trips a day to Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. We do this because we see the birds as neighbors in trouble and are convinced that our well being is linked to theirs. We do not expect everyone to share this view. Whatever reason moved you to help the birds, please remember it.

Currently, we need the following:
  1. People who will collect a bird or two one day per week and bring them to us. As it happens, we are winding up making at least one trip per day to the rehabilitation center. So the price of gas is not an issue. We can administer first aid, feed the birds, and keep them warm until we are ready for an afternoon trip.
  2. One or two volunteers who will make a tour of the rookery on Saturdays or Sundays.
In case some of you are concerned about infections, I would like, once and for all, to dispell the notion that the egrets are contagious. Despite our almost daily contact with the rookery, our six pet parrots at home are all bright and bossy. The only consistent problems we have seen with the egrets are:
  • Infections of the tongue and throat with small leech-like flukes; this is almost universal.
  • Broken limbs.
  • Stab wounds.
  • Occasional infections of wounds with the larvae of flies.
  • Mites in their feathers; we see this in about 1 in 10 birds.
Yes, the birds' droppings are unsanitary, but it goes without saying that one should avoid any animal's droppings. Do not enter the woods. Collect those fledglings who are in trouble: typically the birds who are either standing still or stumbling, on the perimeter of the rookery. The best way to do this is to pick up the birds with gloved hands (protects from mites) and place them directly into a box that is lined with paper towels. Contact 'birdintrouble", and we will do the rest.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine's Day

As I have noted to some of you, the egrets are usually in the UTSW rookery by February 14th. A short while ago I counted 130 individuals, all great egrets.

They came early this year. They began arriving on the afternoon of Wednesday February 6th, shortly after the last major rains. One individual glided by around 4 p.m. A while later, Chalo noticed an egret, perhaps the same one, in an entirely independent sighting.

The next day, their numbers had grown to 20 around lunchtime and 34 by afternoon. We went to the memorial garden area to greet them and found them already displaying their mating feathers and curtsying gracefully to each other.

By Saturday (February 9th) there were 64 birds, and some pairs were already refurbishing their nests and bringing twigs to each other.

This is a wonderfully happy time for the egrets, who are at their most festive and beautiful. I highly recommend a visit to the memorial garden area.

When you do go to the rookery, would you please take along a paper or plastic bag and remove a bit of the trash (mostly pastic bags, and some cans and plastic bottles) scattered around the rookery perimeter? The picked-up trash can be thrown into one the garbage cans at the parking-garage entrances.

I have been meaning to organize a cleaning crew before the birds' arrival. I had also planned to write our news more frequently. Alas, too little time. Still, even without a formal cleaning party, if we share a common intent, we can make the junk vanish in no time.

People are not permitted to wander into the woods once the nesting birds are on site, but a clean-up of the perimeter is fine. Should a friendly interested party or police officer ask what you are doing, tell them that you are with the "Heron and Egret Society."

For those of you who are new to our group, welcome!

Now, I have come to expect to find birds in everything, but The Wordsworth Dictionary of Proverbs  recently surprised even me with its wealth of bird lore. Here are some tidbits I discovered under "St. Valentine".

- On St. Valentine, all the birds of the air in couples do join.

- For this was on seynt Valentynes day, whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make. (1380)

- When you hear the birds call for their mates, ask if it be Saint Valentine, their coupling day. (1621)

- To-morrow is Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird chooses her mate. (1828)

Here's the kicker:

- "There is an old proverb that 'Birds of a feather upon St. Valentine's Day will meet altogether.'" (1673)

As indeed they should! I bet you've probably only heard the botched version.

Happy Valentine's Day!