Esplanade's Noisiest, Messiest Part-Time Residents Are Back. It's Night Heron Season.

Jun 17, 2020

Residents along the 2300 block of Esplanade Avenue have had unusual neighbors for the past several years – hundreds of night herons.

Night herons are spectacular birds. They are mostly grey with black caps and backs and bright red eyes. As the name implies, they are nocturnal, and they usually nest on the coast, in tall trees over swamps where they fish for crabs, crawfish, minnows and even snakes. They fish at night, flying home to regurgitate the seafood for their babies, and then rest all day.

They’re also arguably some of the noisiest, messiest birds to have as neighbors. Being a coastal reporter, the coastal birds caught my attention. Given that I’m working from home now and have nothing else to do besides birdwatch in my free time, I’ve taken to visiting them in the mornings.

From the street, I like to watch all the different stages of nesting evident in the colony. It’s common for the birds to nest together like this. You can see the babies screaming out for food, the parents breaking small twigs off of the live oaks to meticulously build their nests, and the older babies, balancing precariously on their skinny yellow legs. Sometimes a fight breaks out. Scraps of the night’s hunt often fall to the sidewalk, which stinks from the whitewash of poop and rotting fish. It’s delightful.

A night heron does night heron things — pooping and squawking, most likely — in the rookery on Esplanade Avenue in Mid-City, New Orleans. May 2020.
Credit Joan M. Garvey

The rookery on Esplanade has perhaps 60 to 100 nests, and the birds return each year to nest for a month or so every summer after migrating just a little farther south to the coast. There are two types of night herons here — yellow-crowned and black-crowned. They build spindly, uncomfortable-looking nests out of twigs and lay three to five green-blue eggs that hatch into dinosaur-looking babies that are somehow both ugly and cute.

They have long life spans — about 20 years. But night herons have a high mortality rate, and living over a street doesn’t increase their likelihood of survival.

A night heron appears to be sitting through yet another meeting about something they've been over several times already.
Credit Joan M. Garvey

According to the National Audubon Society, populations of the night heron — whose Latin name, nycticorax nycticorax, is derived from the Greek words for “night” and “raven” — declined in the 20th century due to habitat loss and pesticide use. Populations increased after DDT was banned in the 1970s, but water pollution and coastal land loss continue to pose threats. The organization says that overall, the population is stable, but climate change is sure to threaten the species in the future.

It is unusual for a colony of coastal birds to live in such close proximity to humans, especially in an urban environment. It's possible that as Louisiana’s coast washes away, the herons are losing their habitat and moving further north. It’s hard to prove this definitively without tracking the birds, according to David Muth, director of restoration at the National Wildlife Federation. They may have an innate honing sense that causes them to detect black pavement under the live oaks as water, which could have prompted them to nest here.

David Muth, director of restoration at the National Wildlife Federation, peers up at the night herons on Esplanade Avenue.
Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO

Muth, an avid birder who is also a Mid-City resident and a night heron enthusiast, met me under the nests one morning.

“The babies are constantly begging. They're constantly making noises. And as they grow older, the noise shifts,” he explained. “They get louder and louder and louder — ‘Bring me food! Bring me food! Bring me food!’

“I've been doing a little research and in the scientific literature, there's almost nothing described like this, of night herons nesting in cities over concrete. Obviously nesting over a very busy street like this has its hazards.”

He’s right. According to neighbors on Esplanade, many of the babies fall onto the street and die. They are completely helpless, after all, with hardly any feathers and an inability to self-regulate their temperature. That’s why neighbor Jeanne Nathan, director of the  Creative Alliance of New Orleans, has put up signs for the past few years to let drivers know that they are passing through a special nesting site and need to slow down so they don’t run over fledglings.

“Caution, slow, baby herons crossing,” it reads.

“I’m hoping that if they happen to see the bird, they will slow down and protect the life of the bird,” said Nathan, who has found and rescued many of the babies. She brings them to a local bird expert who she said raises them and releases them into City Park.

A baby night heron found by Tegan Wendland rehabilitates from a concussion after falling from a tree.
Credit John Nelson

In fact, one afternoon, I found a baby myself. It was sitting on the soft soil under a giant live oak, where it had presumably fallen from its nest (or been pushed out by a greedy sibling, which is not uncommon). It was about the size of my hand and had an extraordinary squawk. It kept reaching out with a surprisingly long neck and a mouth that opened to twice the size of its head. I was a bit afraid to pick it up, but I also did not want to leave it to die. So I took it home, holding it close to my body despite the summer heat.

It turns out they are very hard to raise. They need to be kept warm and need to be fed a specific diet that includes raw fish. I called just about every professional wildlife rehabilitator and bird enthusiast in Louisiana, and eventually found someone to take it.

For Nathan, this has become a part of her daily life. “I accept it,” she says, of the noisy birds that poop on her car and whose young frequently fall to the street, “But it does make me feel constantly sad that for whatever reason, this is a better place for them than the place in the wild that they came from.”

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