In Brackenridge Park east of the San Antonio Zoo, Alesia Garlock and other environmental advocates take video footage of three city employees as they clap wooden blocks together.

The target of the sound assault is birds roosting in nearby trees. While most of the ducks, pigeons, and the occasional egret seem unperturbed by the noise, others take flight at the din.

The Parks and Recreation Department employees are trying to prevent the birds from nesting in that part of the 343-acre urban park to mitigate the health impacts their droppings can have in the area, said Bill Pennell, the department’s assistant manager. Bird feces in the area has caused health hazards in the past, at times forcing the city to close the playground there and restrict access to restrooms, he said.

A great egret stands in a tree at Brackenridge Park on Thursday.
A great egret stands in a tree at Brackenridge Park on Thursday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Garlock and others see these efforts as part of a “war on birds” the city has been conducting for more than two years. The city’s attempts to discourage birds from nesting in Brackenridge have emerged as a flashpoint in a larger dispute over a 2017 bond project currently underway to restore crumbling historic structures in the park.

A birder, author and self-described “citizen scientist,” Garlock was a leading voice in successfully delaying the city’s removal of 10 heritage trees and about 90 smaller trees last month along the waterline of the San Antonio River inside Brackenridge Park. Among the claims of Garlock, other birders and environmentalists are that the tree removal is at least partially part of the so-called war on birds, an attempt to remove bird habitat from the area. The city maintains that the tree removal has “nothing to do with the birds.”

The goal of the tree removal is to protect historic structures within the park, Pennell said, such as the 1920s river walls on Lambert Beach, the historic acequia and 1776 Upper Labor Diversion Dam, and the 1870s pump house and waterworks channel. Under the voter-approved 2017 bond project, these structures are set to be rehabilitated and renovated. Trees that are removed will be replaced, albeit with less mature trees.

Britt Coleman, president of the Bexar Audubon Society, believes that’s in part because city officials have done “a horrible job of explaining to the public what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how they’re doing it” in regards to birds, “hence, there’s a lot of mistrust and a lot of misinformation.”

Brackenridge Park is just the latest battleground pitting urban life in San Antonio against wildlife, Coleman said, and the city will need to help find a suitable home for the birds long term.

Recognition as a ‘Bird City’

Texas is directly in the center of the Central Flyway, a major bird migration route through the center of the United States and Canada. According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD), Texas has recorded 615 species of birds, more than any other state, with most being migratory birds.

San Antonio plays host to many migrating bird species — the yellow crowned night heron, great blue heron, snowy egret, cattle egret, little blue heron, and tricolored heron, among others — that birders enjoy watching. These birds usually come to roost and nest in the San Antonio area around late February or early March and stay until September or October, when they and their young head south to warmer climates.

In 2021, the city was named a Bird City Texas Certified Community by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and Audubon Texas for its bird conservation efforts.

But Garlock accuses some of the very entities responsible for the Bird City Texas recognition of working against migratory birds in Brackenridge Park and elsewhere.

“We need to learn to coexist with the birds here,” Garlock said. “We need to look at the big picture of how we are going to impact the environment here. A lot of these people are saying ‘No, [the birds will] be fine.’ But they won’t. We are a growing city, an expanding city — so where are they supposed to go?”

Elmendorf Lake Park

The City of San Antonio’s conflict with migratory birds and their nesting colonies is not new. When TPWD biologist Jessica Alderson read a 2014 news article about the trouble the city and zoo were having dealing with excessive bird feces in Brackenridge Park, she contacted the Parks and Recreation Department and Office of Sustainability to offer assistance.

“The birds’ population grew to be so big that they were starting to have a negative impact to the amenities that the park has to offer,” Alderson recalled. “The biggest concern was that the city was having to close down parts of these amenities to the public during this time.”

Alderson gave the city several nonlethal methods of addressing the issues caused by the birds and offered her services as needed.

In 2019, the city sought help from her, the USDA’s Wildlife Services, and Bexar Audubon Society officials in mitigating birds flying across runways at Kelly Field, potentially increasing the danger of collisions with aircraft.

The birds were coming from Elmendorf Lake Park, which was home to 200 to 300 permanent resident birds. But during spring migration and nesting seasons, the total population could swell to 1,000 to 1,200 birds, most of which were cattle egrets.

That winter, in cooperation with TPWD and USDA, the city parks department conducted regular “harassment” exercises such as using loud noises, lasers, small pyrotechnics and strategic tree trimming at Elmendorf Lake Park’s Bird Island to prevent the birds from nesting there. It worked.

Many of these birds found new homes along the San Antonio River in King William or at Brackenridge Park, said Coleman of the Bexar Audubon Society. As habitual nesters “who like to go home,” these birds have returned to these areas in increasing numbers in recent years.

Efforts were made to create nesting sites using artificial structures at Mitchell Lake on the city’s South Side in hopes of encouraging that location as a nesting spot, but the birds didn’t take to this area, Alderson said.

“I believe at the time, Mitchell Lake didn’t have a whole lot of water in the lake,” she said. “I think there was a lot of odds stacked up against that potential project.”

But Alderson said city parks officials have expressed a willingness to try such a project again, and with more research she believes subsequent attempts at other locations could be successful in enticing birds to relocate.

A battle at Brackenridge

In January, the Parks and Recreation Department sought approval from the San Antonio Planning Commission on changes to the Brackenridge Park 2017 Bond Project. These changes would include the removal of 104 trees — including 10 trees deemed “heritage trees” because of age — that were damaging or preventing the restoration of historic structures within the park. Another 200 or more trees would be planted within the park to make up for lost tree canopy. The project’s changes were approved by both the city’s arborist, Mark Bird, and by Alderson.

The Planning Commission authorized the tree removal despite roughly 20 citizens who were opposed. Several of them, including Garlock, saw the removal of the heritage trees as the city’s latest attack in their war on birds.

While Jamaal Moreno, the bond project manager, stressed the project would be to protect the park’s historic structures, Pennell of the Parks and Recreation Department said an added benefit would be bird mitigation.

“But I think it’s been made clear … the reason for removing these trees, the trees that are in this variance request, really have nothing to do with [the birds],” Moreno said later in the meeting. “It’s all because of the cultural resources that are being adversely impacted by those trees.”

Activists felt the city further confirmed the removal was actually about the birds when city staff prepared a packet on the project’s changes for the Historic and Design Review Commission. Because the project’s changes involved removing heritage trees, which are protected under the city’s tree ordinance, the HDRC had to approve a variance for the bond project. As first reported in Deceleration back in February, one of four reasons listed for the tree removal was “to prevent rookeries [nesting areas] from developing and causing unhealthy environments.”

Protestors show up to speak out the proposal to remove 104 trees — including nine heritage trees — within Brackenridge Park during the Historic and Design Review Commission meeting Wednesday February 16, 2022.
Protesters show up to speak about the proposal to remove 104 trees — including 10 heritage trees — within Brackenridge Park during the Historic and Design Review Commission meeting on Feb. 16. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

More than two dozen residents came to the HDRC meeting last month to protest the trees removal. After about four hours of public comment and discussion, commissioners asked for a weeklong extension to consider the tree removal.

The following week, the city announced it would delay its tree removal request to the HDRC while the city and its consultants — including officials from the Texas Historical Commission and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — complete the design work for the bond project. The delay also means any tree removal would have to be postponed until at least the fall because the migratory birds are returning.

Garlock called the latest development a “temporary win,” but noted the city had a lot of work to do to regain public trust — especially when it comes to how they mitigate the birds at Brackenridge.

She shared city emails that showed city staff and USDA officials briefly discussing using lethal methods of mitigation, if necessary, in 2019. USDA staff did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

Pennell said no lethal methods are being used or have been used by city parks employees on birds or eggs at Brackenridge.

“We use humane, non-lethal methods,” he said.

A future for the feathered

If people and migratory birds are going to peacefully coexist in an urban setting, Coleman said, San Antonio must help them find a more permanent long-term home.

This is why the Bexar Audubon Society hopes to work with the city, Texas Parks & Wildlife and USDA to help establish one or two rookery sites using artificial nesting structures, Coleman said. He has already discussed the possibility with city officials, and Pennell said the Parks and Recreation Department is open to the idea.

Calaveras and Braunig lakes could be possible sites, Coleman said, although Pennell said more research would be needed before any locations are selected, a statement echoed by Garlock and other bird advocates.

Coleman pointed to successful rookeries established using artificial nesting structures in Houston and Dallas as examples, and said the Bexar Aubudon Society has reached out to other Texas Audubon chapters who helped create these to discuss best practices.

If such sites were established, getting the birds to move away from Brackenridge would involve harassment methods, Coleman noted.

“It’s not going to be a pleasant experience,” he said. “You’ve got to make the pain of change easier than the pain of staying in the same place, right?”

Coleman emphasized that the egret populations are and have been stable in recent years and that harassment efforts would not do lasting damage to the populations’ overall numbers.

Despite the controversy over the project, the trees and the birds, Alderson said she’s glad to see people taking such an interest in wildlife so that people can safely appreciate the birds as the city continues to expand.

“I’m passionate about wildlife, too, and I don’t take making my management recommendations lightly,” Alderson said. “There’s the issue of providing amenities to the public, and then there’s an issue and responsibility of taking care of our wildlife — and we’ve got to find that balance.”

Correction: an earlier version of this story failed to note that Deceleration first reported that the city at one point did include language in a document that tree removal would also benefit its efforts to remove rookeries from the park. The story also incorrectly stated that city documents backed up Bill Pennell’s claims that the tree removal had nothing to do with efforts to remove the rookeries.

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett is the Science & Utilities reporter for the San Antonio Report.