Feb. 10, 2004 – A cooperative effort may help St. Croix solve one of its more difficult dilemmas — what to do about the infestation of cattle egrets on Protestant Cay.
"Having the birds is a health problem," said Peter Des Jardins, guest services manager at Hotel on the Cay, located on Protestant Cay.
While guests might not like "poop in the pool" or the birds flying by the hotel restaurant at dinnertime, and the Seaborne Airlines pilots dread running into them above Christiansted Harbor, what's giving scientists a big headache is their effect on the federally endangered St. Croix ground lizard.
The cattle egrets eat the lizards as well as the young of numerous other birds that also call Protestant Cay home. Des Jardins said the cattle egrets wiped out the sugar bird population.
While the egrets — a species of small white heron scientifically known as Bubulcus ibis — have made pests of themselves for the last three to five years, depending on whom you ask, it's only recently that efforts have been made to get rid of the 400 or so that called Protestant Cay home.
In the latest go-round, Dr. Paul Chakroff, a veterinarian who is the executive director of the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center, is spending his nights using a laser light in an attempt to encourage the egrets to move elsewhere. The hotel's time-share association bought the laser light for $1,000, but it comes with a six-week, money-back guarantee, which gives Chakroff a chance to see if it will work.
On the first night that he tried, the moon was bright and Chakroff didn't have much luck. But the next nights were less bright and the light was more effective.
He says he has fine tuned the procedure to shining the light for 10 to 15 minutes at a time, and some of the birds are flying away. But the mothers won't be parted from their babies no matter what.
"I hope once they start to fly, they'll move someplace else," Chakroff said. The vacant nests will be removed in the hope of further discouraging the birds' return.
Cattle egrets nest year 'round, so the problem will not be easy to solve.
The attempt to find a solution started last June, when the Hotel on the Cay Timeshare Owners Association and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed that the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Planning and Natural Resources Department would be responsible for eliminated the birds by shooting them. The local division got a $7,500 contract for the job.
The federal agency got involved because cattle egrets are considered endangered because they migrate, according to William Coles, chief of environmental enforcement at DPNR's Fish and Wildlife Division.
The shootings on Jan. 14-16 by Coles did not go well. He killed about 250 birds, but maimed others, an inhumane situation that led to the involvement of the St. Croix Animal Shelter.
"I found 30 or 40 dead birds in the trees, wounded walking birds and baby birds that were going to starve to death," Chakroff said. He said he was first alerted to the problem by Coles himself. Phone calls from irate citizens followed.
Visiting the site, Chakroff ended up euthanizing more than 100 birds.
He said if shooting turns out to be the only solution to the egret overpopulation, it would be more humane to have a veterinarian on hand to euthanize birds that do not die instantly, as well as the nestlings that would otherwise starve to death.
For the cattle egrets that leave Protestant Cay under their own power, there are no guarantees as to where they will go. Chakroff hopes they head to an agricultural area, but if they make their new home in a residential neighborhood, the problem is merely relocated.
Chakroff and Coles now are part of a fledgling task force trying to come up with ways to deal with recalcitrant birds. The task force also is to develop a plan of action should any bird-borne disease such as the Avian flu find its way to the territory. "If we wait until someone gets sick, it's too late," Cole said.
Cattle egrets get bad press. Chakroff likened them to the rats of the bird world. They multiply like rabbits and their feces smell really bad. And they have no natural predators to control their numbers.
They may also carry bont ticks, which cause heartwater and other disease in cattle. The ticks are spread by cattle egrets. Coles referred questions about this problem to the V.I. Agriculture Department, but telephone calls were not returned.
Cole said he doubts the cattle egrets were living on Protestant Cay before 2000. He said the removal of dense overgrowth and the installation of a fish pond by Hotel on the Cay lured the birds to the island. The hotel's efforts to deal with the egret problem by pruning trees to eliminate perches and by removing fish from the pond proved ineffective, he said.
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