Close encounters of the bird kind

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

It began on a perfect Florida spring morning, when I glanced out my back window to see the most remarkable bird.

It stood on long legs, well over a foot tall, with black, white and yellow markings and a tuft of feathers on its head.

That's one of the things I love about this state. It's so exotic to a Midwesterner accustomed to robins, cardinals and blue jays and occasionally those snowy white cranes in freshly plowed fields. Florida has all those, plus pelicans, gulls, terns, herons and lots of others.

I'd take up birdwatching down here, but enough of my activities already qualify me as old and nerdy.

More and more of the long-legged birds began to show up in the back yard, and my awe increased along with their numbers. They started building nests in my tall pines.

I pointed them out to our next-door neighbor, Chris, a rare and valuable genuine Florida native.

"Oh, yeah," he said, glancing up at a nest. "They're crested night herons. Endangered. They come every year."

"Well, they're really beautiful," I said.

"Uh huh," he grunted, and warned me about their pooping habits. "And they're noctural, so they get little crabs and stuff out of the shallow water in the Bay back here and drop the shells all over the place, too." Man, what a party-pooper, I thought.

In retrospect, I didn't even know what a pooper was until these birds got going.

I was still fascinated until the babies hatched. Then a dead chick would show up now and again on the patio, dutifully sniffed out and claimed by our dachshund.

"What if I find any of them alive?" I asked Chris.

"There's a seabird rescue down at the beach," he said. "Sometimes they'll pick 'em up for you, but when the season gets busy, you have to run them down there."

Drive a fallen bird 50 miles round-trip? Fat chance.

I'd carry the bird 10 feet -- into Chris's yard. Let him deal with it.

The rain of dead chicks ended shortly after. The babies got bigger. Then the rain of giant poops began.

Honestly, it was like an intermittent waterfall of waste coming down from the pines, requiring the occasional hosing down to keep the smell tolerable.

I'm not sure how, but a bunch of it got on the guest room window. If poop falls parallel to the house, how does it get under the eaves and in the window? These birds defy gravity!

The last straw -- I was wearing a brand-new blouse for work, the dachshund insisted on taking his morning constitutional through the back yard, and you guessed it. I shrieked. Chris first asked if I saw a snake -- great, turns out we have those, too -- then assured me being pooped on by a bird is good luck in some cultures. My guess is that those cultures don't have to be at work in dress clothes bright and early.

Anyway, the chicks are starting to fly-hop from branch to branch now. The parents are all but gone.

Soon, the entire brood will disappear.

I checked the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission's imperiled species list online this week. Crested night herons weren't on it. I think Chris might have been wrong about their protected status.

So, to prepare for next year's nesting season, I'm checking whether firecrackers are legal.

--Heidi Hall is a former managing editor for the Southeast Missourian. She resides in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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