Twenty miles from their normal habitat, across the street from a busy Modesto elementary school, a group of night herons has found a tree to call home.
“I tried to figure out why would night herons, which are fishing birds, roost in an urban area that is a heavily populated area when school is in session,” said Stanislaus Audubon Society President Sal Salerno, who spotted the birds in April. “It could be that happened accidentally with one pair and then other birds figured that it’s safe.”
By some neighbors’ estimates, 20 adult and juvenile night herons are nesting and roosting in the tree across from Sylvan Elementary School at Delta Avenue and East Rumble Road.
“It’s an anomaly to have such a large bird nesting in an urban area,” Salerno said. “It’s interesting to me that they are doing more than roosting. These kinds of birds normally breed at the San Joaquin Wildlife Refuge, where there is no intrusion.”
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Salerno believes the birds are getting their food from nearby Naraghi Lake. The messy eaters leave evidence of their feasts – fish remains – all over the ground and then blanket the area in dung.
It’s certainly not a tree to park under for shade, but most of the residents and schoolkids like having the herons as neighbors.
Neighbor Richard Brown lives far enough from the birds to observe but not be bothered by their mess and noise. “They are fascinating,” he said. “They just make a lot of noise during feeding time, that’s all. They are leaving fish everywhere and crapping everywhere, they make some weird noises and they fly. The tree they are in is so bushy they have to land on the (outer) limbs and work their way in.”
Brown’s most recent study of the herons’ habits started Wednesday when a young bird fell out of the nest. The bird could not fly but stayed close to the stump of the tree and searched for food on the ground, he said.
Salerno said because the birds are nesting in the tree, they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and cannot be tampered with.
He said the night herons generally finish nesting in the summer.
Steve Lumpkin, the city’s interim director of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods, said no complaints have been made to the city about the tree, but it was not clear Wednesday if it was city property.
If it is, and someone does complain about the birds, the tree can be added to a list to be pruned sooner than the every-eight-years rotation. Lumpkin said the nests would be removed and the trees pruned only after the birds are done nesting.