St. Louis heron rookery has more than 230 nests — and counting

heron rookery
A Little Blue Heron at the rookery in the Central West End of St. Louis. Photo by Lisa Saffell

More than 20 birders conducting a nest survey of an extraordinary heron rookery in the heart of St. Louis on Sunday, July 7, counted 237 active nests and many others in progress. The rookery attracted widespread attention last week when about 15 of the trees in which the birds were nesting were cut down or trimmed.

One nest containing four young herons fell to the ground. They were taken to Wild Bird Rehabilitation in the city, and later were placed in a makeshift nest and returned to a tree in the rookery. But when no adult birds took care of them, the center’s executive director Joe Hoffmann and his team brought the birds back to the center.

The chicks were first thought to be Black-crowned Night-Herons but have now been identified as Little Blue Herons.

“They will continue to be cared for and then released back into the wild,” Hoffmann says. “They are doing great. They’re big eaters, and we are feeding them lots and lots of minnows. We have large flight cages where they will have exercise as they get older and develop their feathers. They will learn how to hunt and will be released.”

The city’s fire department sent a fire truck with a tall ladder to help the bird rehabbers while they looked for any active nest with chicks of similar ages. “There were a lot of eggs, and there was only one nest with four babies,” Hoffmann says. “We did not check out the entire area. It was great to have the fire department for an hour or so. After that I didn’t want to waste any of their time. We wanted to find a nest to add the chicks to.”  Since “herons cannot count,” he notes, the adults would have accepted extra babies in the nest.

A Great Egret carries a stick for its nest. Photo by Lisa Saffell

Heron nest survey

According to St. Louis birder Lisa Saffell, who organized the survey, the 237 nests are of the following species:

147 Little Blue Heron nests; 40 Great Egret nests; 24 Black-crowned Night-Heron nests; 8 Snowy Egret nests; and 18 unidentified nests.

“With all of the activity we noted today these numbers are likely to rise daily,” she wrote on Sunday. “This was a monumental effort completed in less than three hours with no complaints or problems from the residents.”

Most of the trees in the rookery are on the property of Westminster Place Apartments, and the trees were marked for removal long before the birds moved in. Its insurance company mandated that trees be removed because of root damage to walkways and buildings. Westminster’s leasing manager reached out to various agencies for guidance before the cutting began but “they were the wrong agencies who gave her some bad advice,” says Saffell.

The plan is to wait until the nesting season concludes before resuming the cutting. The original date to have all the trees removed is August 8, but St. Louis Audubon and federal agencies are working with the apartment company to get an extension from its insurance company. 

A Black-crowned Night-Heron in a nest in the rookery. Photo by Lisa Saffell

The rookery is located in the Central West End neighborhood, in an area bordered by N. Sarah St., Vandeventer Ave., McPherson Ave., and Washington Blvd. About 55 nests are nearby on the property of a retreat center owned by Saint Louis University, and a few nests are on abandoned property on Olive Street next to a community garden of corn and sunflowers.

“I believe the area is popular with these birds because they build rickety nests on the tops of the trees,” says Hoffmann. “All of these trees are interconnected, and during a storm they would hold together well. They are all also the same height, which is very easy to defend for these parents.”

Birder Kim Bousquet wrote a heartfelt message on the state’s birding listserv praising her fellow birders and everyone who helped the herons: “I’m so glad we have such a great local network of birdwatchers and care givers. Local activism in action (and those willing to help) saved a whole community of rare and beautiful birds who are part of our ecosystem. We are all connected.”

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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