Brigitte Bowers: Egrets depart, but questions remain

10/06/2012 12:12 AM

10/18/2012 12:32 AM

Editor's note: The last in a series of articles about the effects of egrets in South Merced.

It is quiet at the Gonzalez home on U Street, between 8th and 9th. In the back yard, high in a pine tree, a lone egret perches, studying something in the distance. It will leave soon.

Sometime this winter, Edgar Gonzalez or his landlord will cut down the tree and the egrets will not return to his yard next year. He'll set up a barbecue again, and his children will use the swing set.

There will be no cawing to drown out the sound of traffic passing by on 99.

"They just all left," says Amansio Diaz Magana, who lives across the street from the Gonzalez family. "One day, they all flew away." His arm makes a sweeping motion to imitate the fleeing egrets.

"All on the same day?" I ask.

"Yes." He smiles, pleased about the ending to this story.

The mess in front of the Alvarez home on 9th Street remains, but within a few weeks it will be gone along with the egret fledglings and their parents.

The city of Merced will trim back the mulberry trees where the egrets have nested since May. If Roy and Margaret Alvarez are lucky, maybe the city will even agree to cut down the trees. But Roy, who believes the city doesn't care much about the south side, thinks this is unlikely.

For the past few weeks, I have been trying to solve some mysteries about these birds.

I wondered why so many of them were dying, and I worried that they were being poisoned. Eventually, though, I concluded that the egrets were killing each other.

But I still do not know what drew them to a pine tree on U Street and three mulberry trees on 9th, so I cannot say if they will be back in some other Merced neighborhood next year. I have read a lot about egrets, but so much about their mating and nesting habits is still uncertain, still up for debate.

No one can say for sure if they mate for life. Sometimes they return to their previous nests, sometimes they do not. They prefer to nest in tall trees near water, but clearly they are also comfortable in urban environments far removed from lakes, streams and canals.

They nest in colonies, presumably for protection from predators, but nesting colonies, with so many vulnerable chicks, are an attraction for predators and carry a higher risk of parasite infection.

Friends and relatives have proposed several strategies for scaring away great egrets. Tie CDs to the tree limbs, some tell me. But the trees they colonize are so tall that this would require a cherry picker. Others mention carbide cannons. But carbide cannons, which periodically release a booming sound, are more likely to unnerve human residents than disturb egrets that have, after all, adapted to a city where sirens and backfiring cars are regular features.

Removal or heavy pruning of trees will prevent egret colonies, but a neighborhood without tall, leafy trees is not a cheerful prospect.

Perhaps creating more habitats outside of town -- planting trees in the wetlands, near Lake Yosemite, and close to canals -- might redirect them from urban settings. But this is an expensive and impractical undertaking, and is not an immediate solution.

In the end, there seems to be little the average person can do to keep egrets away.

During summer, I often sail on Lake Yosemite with my family at sunset, when the wind kicks up and the temperature drops. I want my sons to love those things, the scent of cooling earth and the elegance of a great white egret, which are at once resilient and fragile.

And so, I always point out the colony of egrets in the eucalyptus trees on the north shore. Each evening as the horizon turns violet, the egrets find their trees and circle above them, their necks retracted and their black legs stretched out behind, and then they alight.

Within an hour, the trees are dotted with roosting egrets. They are always so still, so quiet. There, next to the lake where they have space and water, they are regal.

Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.

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