Nuisance Egrets in Small Towns

By Julienne du Toit

Pictures by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit

Visitors to many South African dorps are struck by the beauty of egrets and herons flying over main roads and roosting in tall trees.

The local residents are not nearly so pleased.

Western cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis), spend most of their days in the veld following herds of livestock, catching insects that are flushed as they graze – including flies, ticks and grasshoppers. They are very useful to emerging and commercial farmers.

These graceful birds often choose to roost and breed in towns, where there are tall trees (pines and bluegums are favourites) and where they feel safe from predators.

And that’s where the problems start.

Egrets will return to their nesting trees year after year.

Stink and Racket

Egrets and herons make difficult neighbours. Locals quickly become frustrated by the fishy stench of their droppings, rotten eggs, the attendant flies and occasional maggots, and the wounded fledglings falling from high branches. There is also the potential for the spread of disease, especially near hospitals and schools.

It is then that people start chopping down trees in desperation – anything to stop the stink and racket of an active egretry.

Every year in Cradock, the municipality is called in to chop down the roosting trees because of the stink and unhygienic conditions. It’s illegal during breeding season, and overall, a lose-lose situation.

This is exactly what has happened in my hometown of Cradock. Again. It happens every year. Entire streets have been denuded of shady pine trees by local residents.

The removal of trees also lowers property values. Who wants to buy a property that will bake in the Karoo sun all summer long?

Breaking Laws

The problem is that it is illegal to chop down trees when birds are breeding. Right up until an egg is laid, it is legal. But that’s not when people call on the municipality to bring the chainsaws. They always wait until the reek becomes intolerable, which is in the middle of breeding season.

So every year, residents are calling on the municipality to break provincial laws because no action was taken when it should have been.

And every year, dozens of bewildered fledglings perch on the fallen branches because they cannot fly yet and mostly perish if not rescued. It causes completely unnecessary suffering for the birds and triggers an outcry on social media, which means bad publicity for the town in question.

Another year, another disaster for young egrets and bad publicity for the town.

In Cradock, a formidable team from the Owl Rescue Centre has been called in once again help save and rehabilitate chicks, but this does not solve the perennial problem.

Help from the Experts

In 2019, BirdLife SA issued guidelines on how to deal with nuisance egretries and heronries. The document aims to help authorities and residents be proactive instead of reactive in dealing with the birds.

One of the authors, Dr Doug Harebottle, is the coordinator for HeronryMAP:Africa, a citizen science project that aims to document the location and status of heronries across the continent.

“In the Eastern Cape alone, the towns that have struggled to cope with nuisance heronries include King William’s Town (Qonce), Makhanda (Grahamstown), Port Alfred and Port Elizabeth. But there are many more.

“What can be done is that out of breeding season, the nesting trees where the birds are unwanted can be pruned or cut down,” said Dr Harebottle.

Egrets favour pines and blue gums in rural towns for nesting. Note that across the road is a pruned tree that has not been colonised again this year.

Once the birds settle, but before they begin laying eggs, residents can also use noise-making or bird scaring devices to deter nesting, as long as they do not harm birds or humans.

Plant a Different Tree

The problem is that the birds often choose another tree nearby, says Dr Harebottle. So the issue is just shifted along, and if more trees are chopped down, towns end up struggling with hot streets in summer. The shady spots are always taken first, for parking or hawkers’ stalls.

Tree shade cools the air by 8 deg C, and the land by 12 deg C. They are crucial as a defense against rising temperatures caused by the climate crisis.

Simply chopping down a tree without replacing it disfigures a town, and makes it a less pleasant place to live and visit.

Trees that are removed must be replaced by others that are not good nesting choices for egrets. These could include species like white karree (Searsia pendulina) which is hardy, evergreen, and graceful. Others might include wild olives (Olea africana) and carob (Ceratonia siliqua). White stinkwoods (Celtis africana) lose their leaves over winter, but are some of the first to green up again in spring.

Fruit trees also thrive in the Karoo – including evergreen citrus trees, and deciduous peaches and apricots.

  • For more information, or to report problem heronries (roosts for egrets and herons), email Dr Doug Harebottle on You can download the BirdLife SA guidelines here.
  • Bird rehabilitation experts should be called in to help if trees are cut down and fledglings are in trouble.
  • If anyone has come up with a solution to the problem of nuisance heronries or egret roosts, please let us know in the comments section.

One thought on “Nuisance Egrets in Small Towns

  1. Ninon Roos says:

    The presence of egrets, particularly the cattle egret, predates human settlement in these areas. Human encroachment into their habitats disrupts the longstanding balance of nature, placing responsibility on us rather than the egrets. These birds serve a crucial role in the ecosystem by naturally controlling insect populations, providing valuable assistance to both emerging and commercial farmers. It’s imperative to recognize our role in this recurring cycle and advocate for a more sustainable coexistence that respects the natural habitats of these vital wildlife contributors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.