By Kate Crowley
Herons and egrets are birds that skulk along the edges of streams, ponds and rivers waiting for an unwary fish or frog to come within striking distance. Faster than the eye can follow, their long necks uncoil as their beaks spear the water and their prey. You have to admire their patience as they stand absolutely still for minutes at a time, and when they do begin to move through the water it is almost in slow motion.
We’ve been seeing a lot of great egrets along the banks of the Mississippi River down here in Mississippi and Louisiana. They have departed their summer haunts in Minnesota in advance of the coming winter, but will remain active down here in the Delta throughout the winter months.
These birds remind us of the disaster that nearly befell them and other water birds at the end of the 19th Century. It was a time when women’s fashion decreed that hats must be adorned with plumage of all sorts, but the most elaborate and fanciful with the long, flowing breeding plumes known as aigrettes. These were found on the great egret, a bird that stands three feet tall, with long black legs, an all-white body and a deadly sharp, yellow bill.
Fortunately, there were a number of high society ladies who also loved birds and when they were made aware of the uncontrolled slaughter (more than 95 percent of the great egrets in North America), they became activists and ultimately stopped the trade in feathers of all migratory birds. They also established the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1896 and took the great egret as their symbol. The National Audubon Society evolved from this group and still has the great egret as its symbol. Because these Victorian ladies took action, in 1918 the government enacted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which to this day protects all migratory birds in North America. A great lesson in the power of knowledgeable and concerned voters.
Egrets and herons nest in colonies called ‘rookeries’. We have an excellent example right along I35 where it crosses the Snake River by Pine City. Look on the west side and you will see a cluster of very tall trees and at the tops of these are the big stick nests of the great blue herons. They are easiest to see in the winter when all the leaves have fallen. Very often these types of rookeries will have a mix of both herons and egrets nesting at different levels. They are noisy, smelly places, as you might imagine. When you come close to them in a boat (because they are normally surrounded by water), you almost feel as though you’ve slipped back into prehistory when pterodactyl’s still flew.
From the deck of the boat, we watch great egrets fly up and down the river’s edge. They pull in their snaky neck and stick their long legs out behind, and with slow, steady beats flap through the hazy, humid air. There is a stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans (about 85 miles long) that is known as ‘Cancer Alley’. Close to 150 plastic plants, oil refineries and other chemical plants are located on either side of the river, which means there are more in this small area than anywhere else in the United States. Greenpeace has labled it a Global Toxic Hotspot. We know that industrial accidents and accidental releases are inevitable and a common occurrences here. High concentrations of dioxin, a known carcinogen, have been found in both the soil and air throughout Cancer Alley. The people who live along this stretch of river are aware of the threats to their health, but the majority are poor and less well educated, and have little recourse when up against the megacorporation’s that operate these plants.
I think about the egrets that stand along the water’s edge with a forest of smokestacks, pipes and holding tanks behind them and wonder what they are eating out of these muddy waters. The contrast between their slender snowy silhouettes and those of the gargantuan towers behind them are hard to reconcile. I guess it shows the tenacity of life and how the other creatures we share this planet with have been forced to adapt to our world.
I think back to those ladies who loved birds and took action to save them and wonder: do we as a nation have the will and determination to change our ways, so that we and all God’s creatures can live in an environment free of polluted rivers and deadly chemicals?