Tree trimmers damage St. Louis heron rookery, birders act to save the birds

St. Louis heron rookery
Young Little Blue Herons after their nest had been cut down in St. Louis. Photo by Lisa Saffell

Scroll down for an update to our original story.

Four young Little Blue Herons and their nest fell to the ground when their nest tree was cut in an unusual heron rookery in St. Louis, Missouri, on July Fourth. Birders on the scene rescued the young birds and brought them to the Wild Bird Rehabilitation nonprofit.

The rookery is located on a residential street next to an apartment building and about 1.5 miles from Forest Park, a popular birding destination. The birds nesting in the trees on Olive Street are Great and Snowy Egrets, Black-crowned Night-Herons and Little Blue Herons. A few herons had nested at the site in past years, but this year, the rookery grew tremendously, local birders say. Substantial flooding in the region this spring had probably forced egrets and herons to look for another suitable site to raise their young.

It so happens that I saw the rookery early this week when I was in the city and shared a photo of it on our Twitter feed on July 1:

Local birders had been visiting the site over the last few weeks and sharing news about it on the Missouri birding listserv. It’s difficult to say how many birds of each species were present before the tree cutters arrived on Thursday. Recent reports on eBird range from 25-70 Little Blue Herons, 15-30 Great Egrets, up to 20 Black-crowned Night-Herons, and 6-15 Snowy Egrets. The trees were filled with dozens of nests.

In addition to the nestling herons, other occupied nests or eggs may have fallen as well. Birder and photographer Miguel Acosta told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch “to say that one tree had one nest is unlikely because they nest in colonies.”

The fallen nest with the apartment building in the background. Photo by Kim Bousquet

Local birder Rad Widmer arrived Thursday morning, found tree trimmers cutting the birds’ nesting trees, and quickly alerted fellow birders via the state’s listserv. More than half a dozen birders showed up by the afternoon and many others discussed what to do online. They alerted the local police and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Snowy Egret is an endangered species in Missouri, and all four species are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Listserv members also contacted local media.

The trees are on the property of Westminster Place Apartments and Townhomes. Local birder Lisa Saffell tells me that “the leasing office and most of the residents were against the trees being cut down. The complex is under new ownership, and apparently it is the new owners who made an arbitrary decision to remove trees but we don’t know why at this point.”

The young herons after being rescued. Photo by Lisa Saffell

‘A rare phenomenon’

Kim Bousquet, another birder who visited the site Thursday, said people who live in the area claimed the reason for the tree removal was either “to get rid of the birds” or to clear out space around the building. She notes that several trees are still marked with red dots, indicating they were slated for removal.

“This is a rare phenomenon in the city,” says Bousquet. “It’s a treasure and should be protected. For these birds, this is their whole community and shouldn’t be cut down. Give them time to raise their chicks and move on and then do your tree trimming.”

UPDATE, JULY 5, 11:10 a.m.: Lisa Saffell reports on the Missouri listserv that the trees were slated for removal long before the rookery developed. The apartment company is “under a deadline to have certain trees removed for insurance purposes because of root damage to walkways and buildings.” And she says the “leasing office is more than willing to wait on the removal of the trees but ultimately they must abide by the requirements of their insurance company and their owners.” Saffell is organizing a nest survey of the neighborhood this Sunday, July 7, at 8 a.m.

UPDATE, JULY 10: The young birds were thought to be night-herons but have now been identified as Little Blue Herons. We have posted an update about the chicks, the nest survey, and the future of the heron rookery.

View photos of the rookery taken June 30 by Ev Luecke

See photos of heron rookeries taken by our readers

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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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