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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 12, March 18, 2023

Where Have All The Herons Gone, New Orleanians Wonder | Martha Rosenberg

Saturday 18 March 2023


by Martha Rosenberg *

In 2004, bird watchers, golfers and just those passing by in Audubon Park New Orleans were treated to an amazing rookery. Great egrets, cattle egrets, snowy egrets, little blue herons, green and tricolored herons, ibises, night herons and anhinga roosted and bred in trees on Oschner Island, next to the golf course. Mallard and wood ducks, geese and swans patrolled the swampy waters as Mississippi kites and hawks sailed overhead. Cormorants dried their wings on branches, wild parakeets hopped from tree to tree and turtles, some four feet in diameter, sunned themselves while alligator gar swam in the water. Then Hurricane Katrina happened….

The birds did not totally abandon Oschner Island after the hurricane (though the huge turtles were never sighted again, perhaps because the water had become more brackish). But the birds’ travails were hardly over. In five years, the 2010 BP oil spill [1] occurred in which four million barrels of oil leaked into the water over an 87 day period. It was so impactful, fumes could be smelled in New Orleans—150 miles from the Gulf where it occurred. Bird colonies began disappearing….

The Deepwater Horizon BP Oil Spill

According to Britannica, as many as 800,000 birds were estimated to have suffocated in oil or otherwise succumbed to the effects of the BP oil spill including 12 percent of the endangered brown pelicans. The chemicals also infiltrated eggs.

“A 2012 study determined that white pelicans that had migrated from the gulf to Minnesota to breed were producing eggs that contained discernible amounts of compounds that were traceable to the BP spill. Eggs containing traces of contaminants were found in Iowa and Illinois as well,” says Britannica.

Fishermen reported [2] encountering disturbing, mutated fish after the spill, reports not picked up by mainstream media.

Disrupted Nests

Then things got worse for the birds. Locals tell of an event during the same time period that was so upsetting to the nesting birds they abandoned their eggs on the spot and never returned. According to Audubon, “Birds can abandon nests if disturbed or harassed, dooming eggs and hatchlings.”

What was the event? Some say a movie was being filmed that involved bright lights at night. Others say workmen in boats had arrived in the usually secluded island to shore up the land. (One reason the birds have chosen the Island for decades is the lack of human visitors.) Since the BP oil spill and egg abandonment event, the bird colonies as they existed in 2004 have never returned. Only an occasional visiting, non-breeding, common egret is seen.

Invasion of Whistling Ducks

Could things get worse for the birds of Oschner Island? Yes. Sometime during the Covid-19 pandemic, an army of whistling ducks invaded. According to the website All About Birds [3], the whistling duck “is a boisterous duck with a brilliant pink bill and an unusual, long-legged silhouette.” They “occur in several southern states and are expanding northward,” perhaps inhabiting Oschner Island as a response to climate change.

Their numbers since 2021 are astounding—estimated to be between 10,000 to 30,000 on Oschner Island alone according to local reports. Their effects on local bird groups are clear. On a recent visit, a reporter saw no egrets or herons, anhingas, cormorants, wood ducks, geese or wild parakeets. The only non-whistling ducks seen were a few ibises, three Mallard ducks and a few coots—a bird with a distinctive head-propelled motion that also swims under water. Only four turtles were seen. Some bird watchers told the reporter the flocks swoop down like locusts and then leave—a claim that could not be confirmed.

Along the Mississippi river, five miles from the island, some pelicans could still be seen fishing and cormorants were sighted in their common pose with wings outstretched to dry. Meanwhile an outside aviary of parakeets along the river, part of the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, was empty as the building is renovated. Where were the animals relocated?

Hopefully the birds who survived the BP oil spill and natural disasters have found new homes. But, the rich and vibrant rookery at Oschner Island seen in 2004 now seems part of history.

(Author: Martha Rosenberg, Reporter/Author)

[The above has appeared earlier at and reproduced here for educational and non commercial use]

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