At Home With the Night Herons

Doing the motherly thing—helping my adult son move out of his apartment last weekend—I arrived with a box of cleaning supplies, rubber gloves and goggles. I pull into the parking area prepared for duty and, before I get out of the car, my windshield is peppered with bird poop. There’s plenty of guano on the ground as I proceed up the stairs to his second-floor bachelor pad.

Taped to the door is this note: “As you are probably aware, large birds known as Black-crowned Night Herons have invaded Riverglen. This problem is not unique to our complex as neighboring properties are currently having similar issues. This is the first time in 26 years that these birds have been known to nest at this site.”

The “issues” referred to include copious amounts of poop, nestlings falling onto the pavement, half-eaten fish strewn everywhere, a god-awful cawing sound that goes on around the clock, dive-bombing of residents, and more poop and feathers. The adult birds are about 2 feet tall, with a wing-span of nearly 5 feet.

These aren’t dainty song birds. And, this is absolutely true, there are hundreds and hundreds of these herons in the surrounding trees. They are beautiful and awe-inspiring, but in such large numbers, they’re also messy and annoying. Think about walking through warm guano into your house and onto your carpets, consider the long walk to the trash bin, the befouled swimming pool, the white-spattered landscaping. Children cannot play outside.  

Here’s what the apartment complex managers say they’re doing to address the issue:

1.    These birds are a protected species so we cannot just get rid of them without federal and state approval and assistance. (Bird websites, however, indicate this species is common on five continents and they prefer marshy habitat, which is common in our location at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers. But, to my knowledge they have never before been seen in such abundance in our Sacramento, California, neighborhood.)

2.    We are pressure washing 5 days a week now and we are walking the property daily picking up dead or injured birds.

3.    We have had Sacramento Vector Control out twice to collect dead birds to make sure they are not diseased or carrying West Nile Virus. Officials assure us there is no disease. The dead birds are simply falling from their nests in the wind or being careless.

4.    Our research shows that once the young birds reach maturity and can fly, the adult birds and their young will leave the property. We cannot say for sure when that will be, maybe another month or so.

Black-crowned Night-Heron
Nycticorax nycticorax

My 20-something has been living in a heron rookery and, if the winds of change don’t blow too hard and rock his cradle, he — like the fledgling herons, will survive long enough to take wing from my back bedroom and neighborhood, which he is now nesting in, and fly off in search of more suitable habitat. I’m preparing to power wash my premises upon his departure and will gratefully return to my privacy once he moves on. I cannot say for sure when that will be.

More information on Black-crowned Night Herons is available online at:

Published by Kate Campbell

Writer, editor, photographer, novelist, short story writer, poet.

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