FEATURE ‌ Something Fowl Afoot 

Appearances more important than environmentalism for CofC administrators

click to enlarge One persecuted black-crowned night heron no longer has a home on the College of Charleston campus
  • One persecuted black-crowned night heron no longer has a home on the College of Charleston campus

Finding affordable real estate downtown is a difficult task. Well over a decade ago, long before the Charleston market got really hot, a pair of black-crowned night herons landed a sweet spot in the live oaks above the Greenway path through the College of Charleston. As is frequently the problem with having the perfect home in the perfect location, the herons had difficulties with the neighbors. Their mess scandalized the anal-retentive set of the college community, who had been kvetching for years.

When Alex Sanders — judge, ornithologist, and $50-million-dollar ivory-billed woodpecker habitat conservationist — was president, he responded to the complaints by saying, "I've taken into account the rights of the parties and the nature of the birds; and I have concluded that we must learn to coexist with them, however difficult that might be. Certainly, it will present no greater difficulty than our neighbors' experience in coexisting with our 8,000 students. But, no matter the difficulty, coexistence within a common territory is an immutable requirement of nature. Humankind, because we feed a little higher up on the food chain than some other species, tends to overlook this natural law. We invariably do so to our peril."

The latest grumblings must have reached sympathetic ears earlier this month, because on May 4, the herons' egg-laden nest was reportedly removed and disposed of. In an e-mail obtained from the College of Charleston listserv, biology professor and ornithologist Melissa Hughes relayed that "faculty and staff have reported observing the nest being removed between 6-6:30 am on Thursday, May 4. The nest, I am told, contained eggs, at least one of which was broken in the process of removal, and the rest were presumably destroyed with the nest." Hughes continued to say that she could not personally confirm the information.

When confronted with these charges, the college initially denied any involvement in the removal of the nest. Mike Robertson, spokesman for the College of Charleston, said that, "the grounds crew have no knowledge of the removal."

Black-crowned night herons — and all birds native to North America — are protected under the migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The act prohibits the "...carry, or cause to be carried by any means whatever any migratory bird or any part, nest or egg of any such bird."

A variety of sources, including faculty, staff and neighbors of the college, have confirmed that the pair of college herons returned to re-nest in mid-April. Ornithologist Hughes noted, "The birds returned to re-nest this spring. Night herons are pretty site-faithful, and will re-nest at or near sites where they have been successful in the past. This pair has been present and nest-building for at least three weeks now, and the new nest (which was certainly large enough to be recognized as a nest) was in the tree as recently as a couple of days ago." This quote was posted to the listserv on May 4.

To gain permission to move the herons, the college would have needed to obtain a permit from the United States Field and Wildlife Services (USFWS). Jennifer Koches, public affairs specialist with the Charleston office of the USFWS, says the college never applied for or received a permit for the heron removal. Koches says the removal of the nest is "a federal offense. If there has been a violation, we will turn this over to law enforcement officials."

Fred Daniels, senior vice president of executive administration and the man responsible for overseeing college infrastructure and physical plant activities, did not return City Paper phone calls. Mr. Daniels, however, did contact the USFWS. Jennifer Koches relayed to the City Paper that Daniels confessed to ordering the College of Charleston employees to remove the nest, but insisted that the nest did not contain eggs.

Establishing whether eggs were present in the nest is significant because the USFWS rarely prosecutes cases that do not include the destruction of eggs.

The absence of eggs in the nest seems unlikely. According to Gary Phillips, GIS research specialist at Coastal Carolina University, "Within two weeks of building the nest they should have had eggs." As noted previously, a nest large enough to be seen with the naked eye was identified more than three weeks prior to its removal. This timeline would almost guarantee that eggs were present in the nest when it was destroyed.

The discrepancy could also be settled by a security camera that is located on the Greenway that would have recorded the nest removal and whether or not any eggs were in the nest. Unfortunately, according to Robertson and the Public Safety department at the college, the digital video recorder located in that area had some technical difficulties and was sent to the Pelco Company in California for repairs on May 7. They are unsure of when the DVR will return from California.

Some institutions take the Migratory Bird Treaty Act very seriously. The South Carolina Department of Transportation has held up completion of the Cooper River bridge demolition project because a nest full of osprey chicks appeared in one of the remaining bridge pieces. James Law, spokesperson for the District 6 Bridge Office, says that it is the South Carolina Department of Transportation's policy to remove all wildlife before proceeding with demolition. Currently, there is one nest remaining; once the chicks in the nest fledge, the demolition will be completed.

Law says that this is not a unique occurrence: "We've had three nests surface during the course of the project. We send the eggs to the Carolina Raptor Center for hatching. Last Monday afternoon, before the final demolition of the Grace Memorial Bridge, we discovered another nest and had the chick that was in it sent to the Raptor Center as well. We couldn't and we wouldn't demolish the bridges without at least doing that much."

This respect and desire to preserve wildlife and the heritage of the natural environment is considered a South Carolina tradition. John James Audubon, the famous wildlife artist whose seminal 1826 work Birds of America is still the genre's gold standard, alighted at Magnolia Plantation. A guest of the Rev. John Dreyton, Audubon visited to paint the water birds that live in the plantation's swamp gardens. The plantation house still contains a collection of Audubon's prints.

His legacy, the National Audubon Society, has worked for over 100 years to preserve and protect birds and their habitats. Norman Brunswig, executive director of the Charleston Audubon offices, has been following this story. He was able to discuss the issue with the college president's office. "They didn't know that the nest was protected and they were not aware of whether the nest had eggs or not," he says. "They felt chagrined about the whole mess."

For the Audubon Society, Brunswig says, "It was very unfortunate that it happened, but it was a sin of ignorance, and our impression is that it won't happen again."

The Coastal Conservation League (CCL) is also troubled by the events that have transpired. "Too bad that the college couldn't see fit to accommodate nature more gracefully," says Executive Director Dana Beach. "An institution like the College of Charleston, which is charged with the education of the next generation of leaders, they are held to a higher standard. The actions they take matter. While removing one nest won't endanger the population of the night heron, the action is a sad testimony of the creativity in leadership at the College of Charleston."

Another CCL employee expressed a different opinion. Jane Lareau, interim land use director, says the incident was "regrettable but understandable."

College of Charleston graduation festivities followed hot on the heels of the heron nest removal, and were probably the primary motivation behind the action. "No one wants to worry about being pooped on while sitting at graduation," says Laraeu. "While we want to preserve, not all wildlife can live in this area. With things like this I just shut my eyes and think: I'll focus on the big picture. I can't save this one nest, but if I save as much land as I can, I can save thousands of nests."

For the record, the nest in question was not in an area where the actual graduation ceremony took place. Many have suggested that the area under the nest could have been cordoned off to prevent any unfortunate accidents — certainly, more simple than driving a cherry picker through campus at the break of dawn.

College of Charleston commencement took place three days after the removal of the nest, in a heron-free environment.

Despite the college's actions, the night heron population will continue to exist. Night herons are not an endangered species. They do, however, produce only one brood a year. Their population is classified as "overall stable or increasing," but they have greatly benefited from general protections provided by state, federal, and conservation agencies. The heron is particularly sensitive to loss of wetland habitat, which affects their food supply and reproduction cycles. Last year's hurricane in the Gulf Coast is predicted to significantly affect their populations.

Just prior to sending this story to print, the City Paper received one final statement from the CofC. The statement, issued from college spokesman Mike Robertson, says, "The College of Charleston has contacted the USFWS and the Audubon society and acknowledged the removal of the nest. Prior to the removal, the workers did not see any eggs in the nest. However, during the removal process two eggs that apparently were covered with nesting materials were inadvertently destroyed. The College of Charleston deeply regrets this incident. We will continue to fully cooperate with the USFWS on this matter."

The five stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. The College of Charleston has grieved completely for the "inadvertently destroyed" night-heron chicks.


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