IMAGE: HERONS IN WETLAND
Ric Francis  /  AP
Great blue herons are seen in the Ballona Wetland Ecological Reserve near Marina del Rey, Calif. After the birds secure food in the wetlands, they return to their nests, typically built in tall palm trees near populated areas, including over restaurants, and in areas which are being redeveloped, to eat.
By Associated Press Writer
updated 9/28/2006 1:12:44 PM ET 2006-09-28T17:12:44

Workers at the Schooner or Later restaurant are trained to seat customers under umbrellas — not necessarily to shade them from the hot California sun but to protect them from falling fish heads, rat bits and half-eaten squirrels.

The eatery is near the nesting trees of a flock of great blue herons that like to clean house by dumping the debris to the ground outside yacht shops in the Alamitos Bay Marina.

While some birds twitter when they eat, the 3-foot-tall herons, with their long arching necks and crass manners, sound as if they're in a dogfight.

In recent years, an increasing number of herons have built nests in populated areas of Southern California as development forced them from their natural homes near streams and wetlands, said Bradley Henderson, an associate biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game.

"The real question is, are the humans adapting to the herons?" said Henderson, who has been keeping tabs on rookeries from Ventura to Long Beach.

The hearty birds are nesting wherever they can hang a feather — from palms near manmade lakes in condo developments to Joshua trees near a treated effluent pond at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert.

Some have welcomed the herons, cheering their ability to adapt and watching with wonder as they lift their ungainly bodies into the sky and soar with grace.

"This is as interesting as a hawk habitat in New York City," said Robert Eisenman, who has been leading the charge to save the birds in Long Beach.

Some want palms removed
Others said the herons are more disruptive than typical feathered city dwellers and want to see them relocated.

Business owners in the marina have tried various methods to get the birds to pack up and leave, including a sonic repeller called Bird-X. Fed up, the owner of Schooner or Later is working with the city to have some of the nearby palms trees moved.

"They're pretty, but somewhere else," said Barbara Tomasek, a secretary at a company that cleans yachts.

A move is also underway in Marina del Rey to move palms containing heron nests to make way for high-end condominiums.

Consultant Carol Paquette said she was involved in a successful effort several years ago to relocate heron nesting trees near an old naval shipyard in Long Beach.

Ficus trees were placed upright on flatbed trucks and moved a mile, as tapes played the sound of heron chicks begging for food to lure adult birds.

Bird enthusiasts remained unconvinced.

"I'm not sure the herons would follow a sign that said, 'now your nests are here,'" said Garry George, executive director of the Los Angeles Audubon Society, which is involved in fighting the Marina del Rey relocation effort.

"It's not like they're intruding on the urban areas — the urban areas have intruded on them," he said.

Species nearly wiped out
Great blue herons are descended from one of the oldest families of birds.

In the late 19th century, the nation's heron and egret populations were decimated by hunters who wanted their feathers to decorate hats. To protect them, Congress in 1900 passed the Lacey Act, which bans foreign and interstate trade in the feathers.

The birds gained further protection in 1918, when the Migratory Bird Treaty Act allowed states to set seasons and enforce limits on hunting. Since then, herons have gradually returned to their previous numbers and are not endangered. In California this year, state Assemblyman Paul Koretz, D-West Hollywood, proposed a bill that would have made it a crime to take or destroy the nests of migratory birds, including herons. The bill failed but could be brought back for reconsideration.

"Herons are one of the few success stories of local birds," said Dan Cooper, who wrote Audubon's Important Bird Areas of California and is starting a study on heron and egret nesting in Southern California.

"People destroyed the wetlands and replaced them with marinas, but the herons have resisted," he said. "They're still here."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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