La Cage Aux Folles

Administrators at Trinity Medical Center in Carrollton just wanted the grackles out of the pear trees. The sometimes annoyingly loud crowlike birds were defecating on the cars in the parking lot and sidewalks. It wasn't a health issue; the falling poop was just a smelly nuisance and a mess, says Karl Hittle, senior vice president of operations at the hospital.

When the hospital's landscaping company said it would take care of the grackle problem, it seemed a simple thing that needed little discussion. Hittle and others assumed the landscaping company, Hoover Landscaping Inc. of Dallas, knew about such things. But when the company went into action on June 4, hospital patients and workers were aghast at the ultimate solution.

"I just felt like I had to do something. It just couldn't go on," says Kittie Heizelman, a Carrollton resident and hospital patient who saw firsthand what the landscaping company's solution involved. "See, what they would do is, they would net the trees, and then one of the workers would climb up in there and tear out all the nests and just throw them on the ground. The mother birds were just flying all around the nets trying to get back in to their babies. It was just a heartbreaking sight for me and also for a lot of people in therapy, patients and workers alike."

Carrollton, an ordinarily quiet bedroom 'burb north of Dallas, made national news a couple of years ago when the city illegally bulldozed an egret rookery, displacing the temporary home for the migratory birds and killing scores. The city ended up paying a $70,000 fine to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for violating protections established in the Migratory Bird Act, a federal law that protects almost all birds, including grackles, from human interference. Understandably, city administrators and residents now are ultra-sensitive to issues affecting birds.

It's no big surprise then that hospital workers and others who passed by the hospital's pear trees made plenty of noise when they saw that the landscaping company had decided to get rid of the birds by putting giant nets around tree leaves and branches. The idea, Hittle says, was to cover the trees with nets to get the grackles out of the trees and to keep them out.

The strategy, which apparently made perfect sense to someone at the landscaping company, would not bring any harm to the birds because it's assumed the terrified adults would fly off when they saw workers come with nets.

The eradication plan would have worked, too. The problem was that it was early June. That meant mother birds were still tending to baby birds in their nests. When the nets came, the babies could not fly off the way their mothers and fathers did. So, once the nets were up, the babies who were still in nests in trees were trapped inside, and mothers and fathers who were trapped outside went berserk. The babies couldn't do much more than squawk, but the adult birds were frenzied, making a racket and flying into the nets trying to get to their hungry offspring.

In the ensuing melee, at least one bird met its death after flying into one of the nets, and "four or five" nests with baby birds were knocked out of the trees. Between 10 and 15 people, including Heizelman, complained to the city's animal control officer, and others complained at the hospital.

"It just broke my heart," Heizelman says. "I just could not understand anyone doing something like that, killing these little defenseless baby birds...There were some grackles and some doves, and one was like a mockingbird. I saw a mother mockingbird flying around."

Heizelman replaced nests in the trees. Some of the nests contained featherless babies. She tried to get the landscaping company to stop what they were doing, and she called The Dallas Morning News but did not hear back from the paper, she says.

When Carl Shooter, Carrollton's animal services division manager, arrived at the scene, he told Hittle that the nets were not a very good idea. Although he had no local authority to level charges against the hospital or landscaping company, Shooter says he suggested the nets be taken down.

Hittle says the hospital quickly realized the error and ordered the nets be removed immediately, and they were removed within 24 hours after they had been put up. The nests that had been knocked to the ground were returned to the trees (which workers hoped were the right ones), and evidence of other casualties besides the one dead black bird was not immediately apparent, Hittle says.

"We did have some birds that flew into the nets," Hittle says. "We did have one adult bird casualty. I'm not sure about the little ones, if we had any or not, but that's all that's lost, if you will."

Heizelman says she went back to the hospital the day after complaining, and the nets were gone but so were the nests that she had replaced to the trees the day before. Gone too was most evidence of the damage. She searched the area around the trees anyway, she says.

"What we found searching in the ground cover, we found one that was alive. We found several of the dead ones in the ground cover that they had missed. We put the dead birds in a sack, a plastic bag and sealed it and took it out to [a wildlife rehabilitation center] along with a baby bird in another box and took that out to them," she said.

Kathy Rogers, director of Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Hutchins (where Heizelman took the living and dead birds) says it's not likely that the baby birds lived long if they weren't returned to within three feet of their original nesting place. The mothers, she says, probably would not have been able to find their own babies.

"If they had been dislodged or displaced, the appropriate thing would have been to collect all of the babies in a box and bring them to a rehabilitator, and then you don't have to worry about whether anybody ever found their family again," she says. "They were advised just to stick the nests back in the tree. Obviously, the person advising them to do that didn't know anything about it either."

Jack Moravits, landscape consultant with Hoover Landscaping, says the practice of netting trees to get rid of pesky birds is common and that he's never had this kind of complaint in 18 years of doing business. Nets are on trees all over Texas and are put into place all year long.

"This is a common practice everywhere, including the state capital. This is not something that's new," he says. "We're talking about grackles here. I don't know, there's a lot of birds out there. I'm as ecological conscious as the next guy, but grackles? To me, they are June bugs; there's plenty of them."

He says his company operates at the request of customers. If they want the nets put on the trees, his company puts the nets on the trees.

"We just did this exact same thing on a lot more trees during the same week in Denton County, I'm not going to say where, during the same period, and nobody called it in because it wasn't the city of Carrollton. But right now, the city of Carrollton has been spanked and spanked hard about the egret thing that now they are as gun shy as we are. We may take another look at where we do business."

Moravits says the number of injured birds was far lower than Heizelman says. He also says the "fiasco" happened in the interest of serving his customer's request to address the grackle problem.

"We regret causing any problem at all. It's customer service first. As far as when this is done, if that lady [Heizelman] called and wanted her trees pruned and netted, we are going to respond to that customer's needs so we would have done it for her as well as doing it for the hospital. As far as checking into all the environmental rights and wrongs, that's up to the property owner...We respect birds, I mean we respect everything to do with Texas or at least I do, I've got this big Texas thing going, but grackles, I'm sorry, I just don't have a lot of sympathy for them."

The hospital has no plans to do anything else about the birds for now, but it anticipates the problem will resolve itself by next year, Hittle says. The hospital won't be netting the trees again though. It won't have to. There won't be any trees to net. The trees, which have nearly reached their life expectancy of 20 years, Hittle says, are going to be chopped down to make room for a hospital expansion.

Hittle apologetically says the hospital was just trying to resolve a bird problem, not cause one.

"We were just trying to remove an odor and sanitary issue for us, and if we'd done it a month earlier, it wouldn't have been a problem," Hittle says. "It's more of...a lack of knowledge and bad timing issue on our part."

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Charles Siderius
Contact: Charles Siderius