Birds creating a mess in Gustine

Herons, egrets from refuge have come to city to roost

etracy@modbee.comJuly 1, 2013 

— Chirping, squawking, peeping — some even describe it as barking: the sounds of birds that normally live near wetlands but have taken over a neighborhood in north Gustine.

The noise, though, is the least of some residents' annoyances. The birds' droppings smell, attract bugs and "paint everything white," resident Mark Souza said.

Eric Hopson, assistant manager for the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, identified the birds as cattle egrets and black-crowned night herons, and said the two have formed a communal nesting rookery.

It's the second year they've come to nest in the trees along Laurel and Lucerne avenues, and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of them.

Their choice of moving into town isn't surprising to environmental scientist Cristen Langner. Egrets and herons live nearest their food source, and Gustine is a fine location for them.

As their name suggests, the cattle egrets feed on insects from cow dung, while the black-crowned night herons eat fish. There are plenty of cattle in the area, and canals around the small city can contain an assortment of fish.

Souza has seen the evidence in his yard: crawdads and half-eaten fish.

The birds started nesting in April. Now many of their young are learning to fly, Hopson said, and once they get the hang of it, they will leave.

But Langner said the birds' consecutive stays indicate they have found the area suitable for nesting and likely will return, in even greater numbers, next year.

That's bad news for Souza, whose efforts at keeping his truck clean this spring have proven futile.

But next-door neighbor John E. Coplantz is a fan of the birds and even keeps a tally of the eggs and the young that get pushed or fall out of the nest.

Sure, his walkway and vegetation are blanketed in bird poop, but he knows their stay is temporary and enjoys getting an up-close and personal look at nature.

"I've gotten hit a few times; it doesn't bother me," Coplantz said. "Live and let live, what the hell."

While the majority of the neighborhood might find the birds to be a nuisance, residents must not disturb them while they are nesting. The birds are federally protected, Langner said.

Next year, if they choose to do so, residents can prevent them from returning by installing noisemakers or pruning trees before nesting season.

Modesto Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at etracy@modbee.com or (209) 578-2366.

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