- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

LONG BEACH, Calif. — The staff at the Schooner or Later restaurant makes sure to seat all customers under umbrellas — not to shade them from the hot California sun but to protect them from industrial-size bird droppings.

Meanwhile, workers at yacht shops nearby are getting bombarded with fish heads, rat bits and half-eaten squirrels.

A flock of great blue herons is nesting in the trees nearby, and they like to clean house by dumping debris outside the stores at the Alamitos Bay Marina.

In recent years, an increasing number of herons have built nests in populated areas of Southern California as development has forced them from streams and wetlands.

The herons — 3-foot-tall birds with long arching necks, a loud barklike call and atrocious manners — are nesting wherever they can hang a feather, from palms near manmade lakes in condo developments to Joshua trees near a treated waste pond at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert.

“The real question is, are the humans adapting to the herons?” said Bradley Henderson, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game.

Some people have welcomed the herons, cheering their ability to adapt and watching with wonder as they lift their ungainly-looking bodies into the sky and soar with grace.

“This is as interesting as a hawk habitat in New York City,” said Robert Eisenman, who has been leading the charge to save the birds in Long Beach.

Others say the herons are a loud and messy nuisance and have to go.

“It’s like having a full glass of milk being dumped on you,” said Denise Lund, owner of the Schooner or Later and a bird-dropping victim herself.

Business owners in the marina have tried various methods to get the birds to leave, including a sonic repeller called Bird-X. The Schooner or Later is working with the city to have some of the palm trees moved.

“They’re pretty, but somewhere else,” said Barbara Tomasek, a secretary at a company that cleans yachts.

Consultant Carol Paquette said she was involved in a successful effort several years ago to drive heron away from an old naval shipyard in Long Beach. Ficus trees were placed upright on flatbed trucks and moved a mile, as tapes played the sound of heron chicks begging for food to lure adult birds. She said the adults followed along.

Bird enthusiasts are not convinced the approach really works.

“I’m not sure the herons would follow a sign that said, ‘Now your nests are here,’” said Garry George, executive director of the Los Angeles Audubon Society, which is fighting the Marina del Rey relocation effort.

Besides, he said, “It’s not like they’re intruding on the urban areas — the urban areas have intruded on them.”

In the late 19th century, the nation’s heron and egret populations were decimated by hunters who wanted their feathers to decorate hats. To protect them, Congress in 1900 banned foreign and interstate trade in the feathers.

The birds gained further protection in 1918, when the government passed a law that allowed states to set seasons and enforce limits on hunting. Since then, herons have gradually returned to their previous numbers, and they are no longer endangered.

“Herons are one of the few success stories of local birds,” said Dan Cooper, who wrote Audubon’s Important Bird Areas of California.

“People destroyed the wetlands and replaced them with marinas, but the herons have resisted,” he said. “They’re still here.”

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