Meeting with UTSW Physical Plant VP

Many thanks for attending last Thursday’s meeting with Kirby Vahle, the VP for the UTSW Physical Plant. The minutes are posted at the Audubon Dallas thread.

If you can, please send special thanks to Anna and Betsy of Audubon Dallas (their contact info. is in the above forum). They took the notes at the meeting and spent a good bit of time assembling the minutes.
As you will see, we stuck to our agenda, which focused on proposals for actions to repair the recent damage to the rookery, prevent future damage, and assist the visiting birds. Vahle agreed to:
1. Replace current signs around the Rookery with ones using information about the birds. (HES and AudubonDallas will furnish brief descriptions of visiting species.)
2. Notify TP&W about any plans to cut/trim around the rookery in future.
3. Call Rogers Wildlife to report distressed birds.

4. Report this meeting to the UTSW President to see if he agrees to issue an apology to the campus (as requested by Peter).

Texas Parks and Wildlife is expected to make recommendations later this week about the rookery.

New Birds Arriving, Tomorrow’s Meeting

Thank you for your communications.

First things first.
After a week of quiet, the birds are looking better. The great egrets are repairing their nests again, as several of you noted. The new arrivals, which had stopped since the disturbances, have picked up again and the number of great egrets has grown to about 300. The smaller birds too are beginning to arrive. I counted eleven little-blue herons yesterday.

The Audubon Dallas thread is gaining steam. Do check it.

Please make every effort to attend tomorrow’s meeting. Here are some suggestions that came my way. Bob suggested that an agenda be sent to Vahle so we that we use our time well.
See below.

Item 1 of the agenda

In addition to introducing ourselves, Chalo suggests that we inquire about the experts who advise the university and how they are chosen.

He further suggests that we secure a promise that nothing will be done to the rookery in future without first alerting Audubon.

Item 2 of the agenda

Peter proposes that a water supply be guaranteed to the rookery. This of course assumes that the university would want to nurture the rookery. That is an excellent place from which to start.

Peter also suggests that a transparent “check-and balance system be set in place to protect the birds,” such as a regular newsletter from Physical Plant.

Robert thinks that one outcome of the meeting should be “a public statement by the institution (UTSW, not the Physical Plant) of specifically how it plans to handle the rookery long term.”

Item 3 of agenda

Several of you support the proposal that a screen be built around the area of the pond. Rogers Wildlife Rehab will advise on this.

Please plan to stick to the agenda and stay focused on the specific actions to be gained from this meeting.

P.S. Based on a conversation with Vahle on Monday afternoon, here is what you might expect (I am paraphrasing here.). He will be shocked by any suggestion that the rookery is being encouraged to crash or that Telfair would want any harm to come to the rookery. He will tell us that Telfair is no longer being consulted because he is retired, and that two individuals from Tyler are. He was unaware of our group. The physical plant was unaware of the presence of the egrets during the recent cuttings and stopped the cuttings as soon as they learned that there were egrets on site. There was nothing unusual about this particular cutting; it is only 1 to 2 trees deep. Based on many years’ statistics, the rookery is thriving. (The hour will certainly be taken up with a recitation of the statistics if we allow this.) The egrets have not always been here and first started coming to this area in 1966 when an apartment complex about 1.4 miles away was destroyed. There is no need to alter university policy about the rookery, because a policy of keeping the rookery “undisturbed until deserted” has lasted through three UTSW presidents. To every suggestion of repairs, he will respond that this might harm the birds, and he will try to reassure us that the birds will not be in any way be adversely affected by the recent disturbances.

Message to be sent:

Dear ———-,
Thank you for helping us organize a meeting tomorrow about the rookery. Representatives of the Heron and Egret Society, Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, and Audubon will be in attendance. About 12 individuals have already indicated that they will attend. The actual number might be higher, but probably not more than 25.
In the interest of time, we would like to have the following items to be placed high on the agenda?
(1) An introduction of ourselves and expertise.
(2) A determination of past and future university policy about the rookery.
(3) A discussion on the actions to be taken to repair the recent damage to the rookery and prevent further damage.

Upcoming Meeting with UTSW Physical Plant VP

Please note that there will be a meeting about the rookery this Thursday (12 March) from noon to 1:00 p.m., at the UTSW Physical Plant Building 2nd-Floor Conference Room (Room P2.100).

This meeting has been organized so that parties interested in the welfare of the rookery (including The Heron and Egret Society and Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation) may meet with Kirby Vahle, the UT Southwestern VP for the Physical Plant.

Please make every effort to attend.

It will be important to use this opportunity productively and not waste an hour
listening to lectures, excuses, etc.

It might be helpful to think of the egrets as the part of us that flies and
approach the meeting with the following aims, i.e. to:

  1. Introduce ourselves and get recognized as a source of expertise about the
    egrets and rookery right here on the campus.
  2. Determine university policy about the rookery and what might be good or
    lacking about it.
  3. Make proposals on how to handle the recent damage and come to some agreement
    with the Physical Plant on the actions to be taken.

Please send suggestions. I will make certain to keep open all lines of communication
between us open right up to the meeting.

“Management” of “Nuisance” Heronries

The good news

Some support is coming in for the birds. For example, Audubon Dallas has stepped in with a report about the rookery.

The bad news

The expert who is advising the university is a retired biologist who wrote about “Nuisance Heronries in Texas” and how to “manage” them. Beware! In parlance about wildlife, “manage” usually means destroy.

If you don’t have time to read this article, here is a snippet:

“Nuisance conditions — where removal of birds might be considered — are subject to federal permit requirements and procedures. The Texas Wildlife Damage Management Service (TWDMS) is the state agency that can assist the public with the proper procedures to apply for a federal permit. After the breeding season, when the birds have left the nesting area, the nests that remain are still under federal protection. To remove these nests, or to modify nesting habitat, you must first apply for a federal permit. If you believe that you may have a nuisance heronry, or would like to modify a site containing nests, contact TWDMS at (210) 472-5451.”

So it appears that somebody screwed up by bringing in the chainsaws while there were birds nesting. Is destruction of the rookery in the planning stages? If so, you are doing a great service. An infuriated wildlife rehabilitator, and more recently, somebody from Audubon told me that this sort of chainsawing operation beneath sitting birds is done to drive the birds away with the clear message that their world will be chopped away from beneath them. Indeed, there are downed nests near the memorial garden, below where birds were actually sitting.

Interestingly, this expert is knowledgeable about Texas plants, as I am. One of his sites describes the great value of hackberries and red mulberries.

Most of the hackberries and all of the red mulberries of the rookery were savaged last week. The destruction was so systematic as to make one wonder whether they had been targeted for destruction. These are natives trees of small stature, tough as nails, and long lived. They provide great cover for birds, protection from erosion, and even food for the songbirds. Some of the trees destroyed were quite mature. See the attached photo and count the rings. Another photo shows the depth of the “perimeter” removal.

What the Society can do

Please keep on keepin’ on. Our Society is awfully good, though we don’t waste time on meetings and other nonsense. We do not have to leave the final word on the rookery to the university’s expert.  I expect that I am as knowledgeable about Texas birds and plants but infinitely more caring. I am also not retired. There are others in our group who are knowledgeable about ornithology and ecology. All of us in the Society have direct experience of this specific rookery and its birds. He does not; he is based quite far away. Your suggestions on the rookery matter more.

Please keep up the pressure in every way you can so that the recent damage is repaired. One approach is contact everybody you know who cares about wildlife and ask them to make their opinions on this known. Public disapproval is the major thing shielding the birds and their rookery.

Chainsaw Massacre Coming to Channel 8 TV

News of the rookery disturbances will appear at 5:00 p.m. on Channel 8. WFAA will be reporting live from the Rookery.  St. James is a real pro and very dogged about this story. She was here yesterday afternoon when some of the excised underbrush and stumps were still on the ground, and back again this morning for some interviews. Everything happened rather quickly this morning. I tried to contact as many of you as I could but managed to reach only a few.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part II

We walked the perimeter of the rookery this afternoon and were shocked by what we saw. So far, we had only seen the damage from our car as we drove to and fro. Please take a walk there as soon as you can: tomorrow if possible. It is important that we all see this.

Many thanks to those of you who contacted Salazar and took other measures to ensure the birds’ well being. Some of you are encouraged by Salazar’s quick reply that he is “committed to the safety and success of the bird sanctuary”. Others are quite skeptical. Our reactions and responses do not have to be the same. The important thing is that we have put on notice those directly responsible for the recent cuttings and prunings.
A Game Warden from TX Parks and Wildlife will be here next week to examine the damage.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre

If you wandered by the rookery recently, you probably noticed that all the underbrush was cleared, and many trees cut down or pruned. All of this happened since this Monday, while over 150 birds were in place on their nests. Though it is certainly true that the weather is ideal for removing dying trees that the spring winds would probably knock down, it is actually illegal for a rookery to be disturbed while it is active. Last year, some trees and shrubbery were also pruned around the same time but only on the rookery’s perimeter. This year, the pruning is more intrusive, the entire rookery is affected, and the birds appear to be quite upset by this.

It is time to let the UTSW grounds people know that we are disturbed by these recent activities, or at the least, that we are watching them. If you agree, please write a polite note stating your concerns to Mr. Orlando Salazar, the Grounds Maintenance Supervisor for the Physical Plant. I have spoken to Mr. Salazar in the past and found him to be receptive to comments about the rookery. For example, he has been very good about letting us set up water troughs around the rookery and leaving them alone. On the other hand, we cannot know what pressures are on him.
You might be surprised to learn this, but there are some who would like to see the rookery replaced by new facilities for people. The rookery was expected to kill itself many years ago, as many rookeries do, especially with a little nudge here and there. Instead, it has survived some quite damaging human disturbances, such as interference with a brook that ran through it, removal of numerous trees to construct tennis courts, etc. But I digress, and that was long ago.
We must not allow damage to happen on our watch. You might start your message to Mr. Salazar by thanking him for his help to (or noninterference with) the Heron and Egret Society and then go on to state your concern about the recent prunings and, if you wish to be firmer about this, about the fact that an illegal activity took place. He needs to hear from us now and then, and not just from those who wish the birds were gone and call him to complain about the smells.


Welcome back from the winter! I hope you are all well and happy.

The egrets began gliding into the rookery last Friday, right on schedule for Valentine’s. About 150 birds are here: all great egrets. More coming all the time. The first arrivals get the best nests. They are fortunately those near the memorial garden, where one can sit and leisurely observe the most masterful curtsiers in their full mating plumage. Great show! This is also where, in about two months, the first hatchlings will be bobbing their spiky little white heads and kwak-kwaking.

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?

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.