Editor's note: The second in a series of articles about the effects of egrets in South Merced
The great egret's wings are powerful enough to require only two wing beats a second to reach a cruising speed of 25 miles per hour.
Its slender black legs extending behind, its neck retracted, its size faintly reminiscent of the extinct pterodactyl, the egret is majestic in flight.
During breeding season, egrets grow plumes once so coveted by milliners that by the early 20th century 95 percent of them had been killed off, the feathered hats of fashionable women everywhere were the only reminder of how plentiful egrets had been.
Then, in 1910, with the support of prominent citizens such as Teddy Roosevelt, the New York State Audubon Plumage law made hunting birds for plumage illegal in New York.
By 1920, plumage laws had been enacted in 12 other states, and today the egret is a federally protected species, which means that, no matter how many of them decide to colonize your back yard, you cannot shoot them.
Leticia Chavez knows this.
Her property borders the house on U Street where Edgar Gonzalez and his family are so besieged by an egret colony that the children are no longer allowed the small luxury of playing in their own backyard.
Though she admits the egrets are a nuisance, Letitia likes them anyway. In fact, she has taken on a maternal role for juvenile egrets which have lost their way, falling from the trees and becoming easy prey of neighborhood cats and dogs.
"They're innocent," she tells me. "I feel sorry for them."
Letitia is standing at the threshold of her home. I mention that her property is free of the guano and feathers that plague adjoining properties.
"Well, they're not in my backyard," she says. "They're in those trees in Edgar's yard."
Sometimes, though, an egret lands on her property. Letitia tells me about the time she and her husband found a wounded egret on her side of the fence and rushed it to the Stanislaus Wildlife Center in Hughson, a trip that must have been at least slightly unnerving for all involved.
Another time, an egret got caught in her fence. It turned on her husband when he tried to extract it, but eventually he freed the bird, which flew out of his arms and disappeared. I ask Letitia if she has seen anyone shooting the birds.
"I saw a little boy pretending to shoot them with a BB gun," she said. "But he didn't have any bullets."
"Maybe he was imitating someone else who had shot them," I offered.
"Maybe," Leticia answered. "But I haven't seen anyone do it."
In fact, the egrets might be their own worst enemies. Because they live in colonies, they fight over territory, and this is such an integral part of their behavior that parents do not even prevent their juveniles from dueling it out to the death.
This might account for the observations of Chanice Elsfelder and others who told me that the birds "just fall dead" from the trees.
While a pair of egrets might produce as many as six viable eggs, three eggs are the average, and of these three it is common for only one to make it to the fledging stage. If their siblings don't kill them, the chicks are prone to tumbling from their nests.
A day or so after I first visit the colony, I take my son Casey and our foreign exchange student Maxime to see it.
"What is all that white stuff on the trees?" Maxime asks.
"Guano," I tell him. But he does not know the word guano, and so I define it for him.
"Oh no!" he says. "That's incredible! It looks like snow!"
It is a remarkable sight, so many large birds colonizing in the middle of town, cawing late into the night, carrying on dramas of mating and murder.
And while I sympathize with the human residents, I am also pleased to show my sons that here, in a city of big box stores and franchises, is something wild and unexpected.
I do not believe these birds are innocent, at least in the way I interpret the word, but they are astonishing, and I cannot help but admire them.
For more information about this topic, go to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, www.allaboutbirds.org; birdcentral.net; and ecologist and author Ria Tan's "Great Egret," http://www.naturia. per.sg/buloh/birds/Egretta_ alba.htm.
Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.