A bustling, noisy colony of hundreds of nesting birds may be fun to watch from a distance. Living under one is another story.
Since May at the Tuscaro apartments in North Natomas, more than 100 pairs of cattle egrets, black-crowned night herons and snowy egrets have built nests in the trees on the grounds of the Truxel Road complex. The massive bird colony – known as a rookery – has caused all sorts of problems for groundskeepers, residents and wildlife rescue teams.
One fairly minor annoyance: The birds don’t shut up. Ray Garcia, the complex’s manager, said there are nonstop chortles and squawks, especially from the nocturnal night herons that live up to their name.
“They never go to sleep,” Garcia said. Much worse is the mess and the stench.
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Last week, several of the trees had 10 or more nests in their branches. Below the trees was a coating of white bird droppings mixed with feathers and uneaten bits of fish and crayfish the adult birds brought their babies to eat. The shrubs near the manager’s office also were flecked white. Droppings dotted the walking path to a nearby pond, and a corner of the concrete ringing the pool area was filthy with droppings. In some spots, the pungent ammonia smell of bird feces and decay was overpowering in the afternoon heat.
Garcia said the feces have gotten so bad, he’s had to bring in workers with pressure washers at least three times a week. But tenant Carlos Jones said it’s a hopeless battle.
“You see the pavement during the daytime,” he said. “By the night, it’s done. It’s all white.”
The clumsy baby herons and egrets also have overwhelmed a local wildlife rehabilitation group that’s been called to the complex to pick them up and provide them care when they fall out of their nests. Such falls are normal for juvenile herons and egrets at rookeries.
They build notoriously flimsy nests that sometimes give way in high winds. Falls also occur as siblings jostle for dominance in the nest and as they learn to fly. The falls can be fatal.
Sacramento Heron and Egret Rescue co-founder Christy Berger said that since May her group has picked up about 100 chicks that ended up on the ground. Many of the birds have broken wings or legs or are dehydrated. Berger’s group has taken so many to Gold Country Wildlife Rescue in Loomis that the rehabilitation center needed to host an online fundraiser to help pay for their care. So far, it has raised more than $5,000 for food and treatment.
It’s not the first time a rookery has sprung up at a Natomas apartment complex. Last year, Berger said, the birds built a rookery at another one further south.
Berger said that while last year’s rookery was close to the same size, the Tuscaro colony is much more problematic because many of the birds’ nests are directly over the complex’s vehicle entrance. The confused chicks that fall or that simply wander about on foot as they learn to fly are in constant danger of getting hit by cars.
Meanwhile, federal and state law prohibits tampering with heron and egret nests without a permit. Garcia, the complex manager, said there are no plans to ask for one. Instead, after the birds leave later this summer, many of their nesting trees are going to get cut down. Garcia said the tree-removal decision was made before the birds moved in.
Where the birds will go next year is anyone’s guess, but it might well be another site in the Natomas area.
Krysta Rogers, a bird scientist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the area’s flooded rice fields and irrigation ditches have become surrogate habitat for the marshlands the egrets and herons would otherwise prefer.
“They’re trying to adjust to the changes that we’ve made to their habitat,” she said.
Not all of the apartment complex residents mind sharing space with the birds.
Tenant Aaron Hanson said he’s made it part of his daily routine to walk around the grounds and pick up the birds that have fallen from the nests. He puts them in cages that Berger’s group sets out so they can later be driven to the rehabilitation center.
Hanson said he has released the healthier ones over by the pond. Hanson gives them food – and nicknames. There’s Big Head, a night heron, and egrets he calls Tiny, Missy (“she’s a real sweetheart,” he says) and “Eazy-Egret” (a play on the name of deceased rapper Eazy-E).
“I do understand that some residents may be a little bit iffy on the birds,” he said. “But from the lighter side of it, they’re only temporary. They’re only going to be here until August or September, and then they’re going to fly out.”