When Patricia Joe bought her home on Mulberry Road in Atwater in 2012, she noticed that there was bird guano on the elm trunks in the front yard. Not a lot of guano, really, but detectable nonetheless.
Still, Patricia didn’t think much about that. She had some remodeling plans for her lovely new home on an acre, including an upgrade for the front landscaping. But she and her husband, Kenny, didn’t get around to the landscaping in 2012 or in 2013.
Still, the grass was green and the elm trees, which had been trimmed before they bought the house, provided good shade and needed no care those first two years. By 2014, though, the trees were a bit overgrown. And then, in late March, the egrets came.
Patricia didn’t really pay attention to them at first. She is a busy mother with three kids, and she professes no great love of the outdoors or wildlife. So the first egrets came and made nests in those overgrown trees, and Patricia thought nothing of it. Four months later, though, she cannot ignore the egrets, no matter how hard she tries. There are about 100 of them living 10 feet from her front door.
I noticed the egrets in early July while taking my Great Pyrenees, Monty, out for a morning stroll. Because I have previously written about egrets in this column, I went back to the house to see what the owners could tell me about the egrets that had taken up residence in their yard.
It was a story I had heard before. Patricia was frustrated and angry. Her kids can’t play outside. Her lawn is dead, covered with feathers and guano. The chicks fight and throw each other out of the nests, and Kenny picks up at least four egret carcasses a day. Oftentimes there are dead fish rotting on the lawn, too, carried there and dropped by the egrets that fish in nearby canals and the wetland preserve on Sandy Mush Road.
Worst of all, Patricia and Kenny can’t do anything about the problem. Egrets, which had been hunted almost to extinction by the beginning of the 20th century, are today federally protected. When Patricia called the Department of Fish and Game, hoping someone might come out and disperse the egrets for good, she was told she would just have to wait for the birds to leave.
“Sometime in September,” Patricia said. “Meanwhile, we can’t even have barbecues. Their feathers and poop get in the pool. It’s not so much the noise as the filth.” A young egret strutted by as we talked. “You don’t know what kinds of germs they’re carrying.”
We stood near her front door and watched feathers drift from high up in the elm. “In September, these trees are coming down,” Patricia said. She pointed to a row of Italian cypress in the yard across the road. “Will they nest in those trees?”
“No,” I said.
“Then that’s what we’re planting.”
A few days later, I went by Patricia’s to take pictures of the egrets. On one branch, two adults were fighting – flapping their wings, stabbing at each other with their beaks, and squawking. I felt as though I was observing the tenants of a high-rise apartment building with all of the walls removed. It was a little like watching “The Real Housewives of New York City,” Discovery Channel style.
The woman who delivers the Sun-Star in Patricia’s neighborhood drove up and stopped. “What’s in those trees?” she asked.
“Egrets,” I said.
“I wondered,” she said, looking up into the elms. “I could hear them every morning, but I wasn’t sure. What’re they going to do about them?”
“Cut down the trees,” I said.
“They’re going to miss that shade,” she said. Then she told me about another colony of egrets a few streets over.
I drove home thinking about the drake elm in my yard and the egret I saw near my fish pond earlier this summer. I love that elm tree. It shades about a third of our yard, its branches far-reaching and lush. I have decided to watch for egrets around my house, and to be especially vigilant in early spring.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.