How the slow attention of local women exposed an institutional war on the birds of San Antonio.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series. Read part two, “Place of Herons,” here.
In 1962, Rachel Carson—government scientist, nature writer, breast cancer non-survivor, and queer woman on the DL—published the book of gentle militancy that would launch contemporary environmentalism in the U.S. Despite gendered accusations of hysteria, Carson’s Silent Spring unearthed what government and industrial science already knew but concealed from public knowledge—the toxic afterlife of war-time pest control chemicals, converted to profitable domestic use, on public and ecological health.
It did so largely by focusing Carson’s scientific attention on birdlife in particular, as in the famous fable that opens Silent Spring, giving the book its title:
“Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients.
“There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours. There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example—where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices” (2).
Since Silent Spring, birds have served as an indicator species suggesting the deep interlinkage between the fate of humans and that of the ecologies in which they are embedded, especially where those ecologies have been industrialized and rendered toxic—layers of meaning evident in our everyday references to the proverbial canary in a coalmine.
Likewise, the optics of injured or dead or oil-slicked birds is central to the way we remember and make sense of the scope of environmental disasters like Exxon Valdez or BP.
In urban industrial environments, these linkages between human and nonhuman wellbeing are still close at hand, but they have been psychologically submerged from view—less spatially than temporally. The scale and pace of urban life, in other words, obscures the scale and pace of ecological processes that, without our knowledge or attention, continue to unfold in close proximity. Moreover, the temporality of these processes themselves—their slowness—means they often lie beneath the threshold of what counts as important politically.
The sort of invisibility produced by the temporality of both ecological processes and ecological disaster is captured in Rob Nixon’s idea of slow violence. As he writes in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), we often regard violence as a “highly visible act that is newsworthy because it is event focused, time bound, and body bound” (3).
But environmental disasters, especially those borne disproportionately by communities marginalized economically or politically, unfold as a “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight … dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all” (2).
Despite the apparent rapidness of climate crisis, this crisis has been tripped by long slow centuries of carbon-belching industrialization that have happened largely out of sight and mind (for those who have benefited from the process, anyway).
A key part of Nixon’s argument is that the crisis of slow violence is equally a crisis of representation—how to make it visible in a way that also makes it matter/count politically? Nixon is a literary scholar, and for him the “environmental writer-activist” offers the best intervention. But the habit of slow attention that undergirds environmental justice writing is equally present in many artistic and scientific practices—from poetry to photography to painting to ornithology.
Nixon’s framework came to mind recently in the conflict over birds that has erupted in two public spaces that serve as commons in San Antonio, particularly among its Chicano and Mexicano communities: Brackenridge Park in the heart of the city and Elmendorf Lake Park adjacent to the Westside campus of Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU).
Whereas Carson documented the indirect and unintended consequences of pesticides on beloved birds, these cases suggest direct targeting of birds themselves as pests to be dispersed either physically or chemically—something that many park users see as an echo of larger planning processes attempting to push them, like the birds, either from the park (in the case of Brackenridge) or from the surrounding neighborhoods (at Elemendorf).
But if this issue has gotten any kind of public attention, it is only because writers, photographers, scientists, and others accustomed to regular spells of sitting, watching, and recording over many months and years have already been engaging these birds in the habit of slow attention.
As with Silent Spring, it is women, two artist-scientist women in particular, whose habit of attention has become the basis for public alarm and, hopefully, action.
To tell the story of this conflict over birds in public spaces, then, it is necessarily to tell the story of the local knowledge these women—alongside many other long-time residents—have accumulated about the egret and heron communities the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department refers to as “nuisance heronries.”
It is to tell a story about the birds themselves with whom we share urban space. And it is to ask: What sorts of politics—what sorts of solutions to slow violence—open up when the kind of attention these women have tendered, at once aesthetic and scientific, allows us to see urban birds more plainly, to know them a little better—allows birds to matter more?
A Park with No Birds
Alesia Garlock is lively and garrulous, and I first speak with her in mid-February, right before the first migrating Great White Egrets are due to arrive in Brackenridge Park, San Antonio’s central park of nearly 350 acres. A photographer and citizen scientist, she has been documenting the comings and goings of the birds here for five years, after a blind date brought her to the rookery that has overhung the recycled shallows of the San Antonio River for decades. Rookeries are large arboreal colonies where egrets and herons roost and nest, and the one at Brackenridge had hundreds of nests until recently, when the City knocked most of them down.
Of the long-legged wading birds which dorm at Brackenridge, the Cattle Egrets predominate, but Snowy Egrets also roost in the trees across from Joske Pavilion, as do Yellow Crowed Night Herons, Little Blue Herons, and Tri-Colored Herons.
Originally native to Africa, the Cattle Egrets have become inseparable from more regionally indigenous heron and egret species. As naturalist Frederick R. Gehlbach notes in Messages from the Wild: An Almanac of Suburban Natural and Unnatural History (2002), Cattle Egrets “[attract] native egrets, herons, and anhingas to their rookeries,” while the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reverses the relationship in Nuisance Heronries in Texas: Characteristics and Management: “Apparently, Cattle Egrets are attracted to inland heronries already established by the latter native species” (4).
Whoever attracted whom, the lives of the Cattles are inextricably bound with the Great Whites, the Snowies, the Little Blues and others. “But we dislike rookery odors and noise,” writes Gehlbach, “so we employ air cannons to scare [all] the birds and emulate elephants by bulldozing the trees. Unlike nature’s selective tree removal, however, we clear the ground, so cattle egrets will establish new interracial neighborhoods in the nearest uniform-age woodlots we inadvertently created for them by bulldozing in the past” (127). We can’t expect to clearcut and develop original habitat, in other words, without creating nuisance heronries in the process; nor can we displace Cattle Egrets without affecting other species, some of them already threatened.
Brackenridge Herons and Egrets. Images: Alesia Garlock
Garlock emails me a list of the many other avian species she’s photographed there, evidence Brackenridge serves as an example of what she calls “the web,” with predators and prey in abundance and the daily opportunity to witness “the balance of nature.”
“Barred Owls,” her list begins, “Black-Chinned Hummingbirds, Red Shouldered Hawks, Golden Fronted Woodpeckers, Whistling Ducks, Migrating Kingfisher, Little Green Herons. Migrating waterfowl include Wood Ducks, Blue Winged Teals, Ring Necked Ducks and Scaups. American Coots, American Wigeons, Gadwall, Ross And Canadian Goose. Songbirds, Blue Jays, Titmouse, Sparrows, Warblers, Finches. More. Ravens last year, Zone Tailed Hawks this year.”
Images: Alesia Garlock
But it is the waders that dazzle her, particularly their mating and nesting rituals. Garlock describes how, after that auspicious blind date, she began returning to Brackenridge to photograph the birds, partly to wait out traffic after work but partly because she found it gave her respite from chronic pain issues. “Just coming to the park and seeing nature up close,” she tells me, “especially the birds and their mating and courtship rituals … it works as pain management.”
In his classic Adventures with a Texas Naturalist, Roy Bedichek has described the mating rituals of the wading birds in equally star-struck terms:
“The herons are delicate courters. Approaches are elaborate, patient, and dignified. Nature has adorned them for the ceremony, particularly the egrets, with filmy, flowing plumes, lace like, dazzlingly white and of nuptial suggestiveness. There is a kind of code rarely breached. I think one might study them in this association long enough and carefully enough to compile a book of their etiquette, or formulation of rules by which they are guided (242) …
“[T]he bird expresses affection with its neck. Herons, egrets, and other species so equipped twine their long, graceful necks and stand thus for hours at a time during the mating season. I have seen a pair of Louisiana herons stand motionless as statuary for extended periods thus embraced, head resting each on the other’s flank, rousing themselves now and then from this loving torpor only long enough to nibble a little, time about, at the roots of each other’s mating plumes, and apparently experiencing ‘the depth but not the tumult of the soul.’” (251-252).
The Brackenridge egrets and herons are migratory birds, wintering on the Gulf Coast and flying inland to court and nest and fledge in early spring. As such their breeding activity is legally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), which is overseen by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. According to the MBTA, it is illegal to destroy the nest of a migratory species that contains eggs, or to harm or kill the birds or their chicks.
The Great American Egret and the Great White Heron were in fact driven to near extinction by the turn of the 20th century, according to William O. Douglas in Farewell to Texas: A Vanishing Wilderness, decimated by the plume trade, which sought the birds’ extravagant courtship feathers as adornment for women’s hats. Douglas writes that wading birds in Texas were also threatened by the timber industry which, in an effort to suppress less profitable tree species for pine, sprayed hardwood forests and rookeries along with them, destroying entire populations of nesting birds.
As a citizen scientist, Garlock collects data on the Yellow Crowned Night Heron for an A&M professor—a process that commits her to documenting the mating, nesting, and hatching process from start to finish, counting the number of nests and birds she sees in a given year. In 2018, for instance, she counted 22 nests for the Great White Egret, generally the first to begin nesting. Once endangered by the plume trade, the Snowy Egret last year had around 50 nests here, as did the Little Blue Heron. The Tricolored Heron, considered climate endangered by the Audubon Society, had only eight nests, five of which were lost to predators, leaving only eight chicks for the year.
Audubon defines climate endangered bird species as those which “may lose over 50% of [their] current range by 2050” because of climate change, while climate threatened species may lose over 50% of their range by 2080. In total, Aubudon estimates that 314 North American bird species are either climate endangered or threatened.
Given her habit of careful attention and documentation, Garlock began noticing subtle changes in the habitat of the rookery in the last few years. First, the City began removing trees and nests in an effort to deter the birds from nesting in the park. Then, in early 2018, the City began using a chemical deterrent named Avian Control near the rookery, setting up one sprayer in front of the restrooms outside Joske Pavilion (near the children’s playground) and the other across the river on the roof of the old bathhouse (a children’s playground itself).
Poisons on the playground
The active component of Avian Control is a substance called Methyl Anthranilate (MA), a food-grade flavoring agent with a purpley grape odor. It’s also used as a bird irritant, targeting the trigeminal nerve system and causing discomfort, stress, and disorientation. While warning signs placed by the City identify Avian Control as a “grape extract vapor,” MA is derived not from grapes but by heating two chemicals—anthranilic acid and methanol—in the presence of hydrochloric acid.
While signs claim the chemical is “suitable for people, their pets, and animals,” the National Institute of Health’s Toxicology Data Network includes a profile for MA which states that it is associated with skin, eye, and respiratory irritations that “may provoke asthmatic response in persons with asthma who are sensitive to airway irritants.”
This is consistent with what Garlock herself has experienced and witnessed: Exposure to the spray, she says, “caus[ed] my eyes and skin to burn and throat to constrict,” leading to “headaches, lightheadedness and dysphagia.” She describes multiple doctor visits after trips to the park—to urgent care for an allergic reaction, to an ENT specialist, and to a dermatologist for a biopsy of the rash that developed after exposure to the spray.
She has also witnessed other park goers exhibiting similar symptoms that she attributes to MA exposure, as when she saw one man double over unable to breathe, nearly collapsing just after walking past the sprayer near Joske Pavilion. Another friend with asthma underwent multiple ER visits following exposure. And while it may be true that, as a common food additive, Methyl Anthranilate is generally safe for the general population, it does bear asking: do we really want to be flavoring our grape Kool-Aid with a bird irritant that also triggers asthma attacks?
These apparent public health impacts might be predicted just on the basis of how MA affects birds. Garlock describes finding the carcasses of Little Blue Herons near sprayers, while a photographer friend discovered numerous chicks—over 30 near one tree that had been sprayed directly—pecked to death on the head by adults. As another friend, a biologist, explained to Garlock, “the parents will do this if there is a problem with the chicks.”
Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation, Inc., in fact, reported almost double the number of injured and orphaned egrets and herons in 2018, when the city began spraying, as in 2017.
As told to me by Ava Donaldson, WRR communications and development manager, “the vast majority of these come from Brackenridge and other San Antonio parks.”
“In 2017 Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation rescued about 200 egrets and herons whereas in 2018 we rescued close to 350. Already this year we have taken in over 30 injured and orphaned egrets and herons,” Donaldson said. “By the same date last year (January 1, 2018 – May 24, 2018) we had taken in only 20. So even though this is very early in the mating and hatching season for most of these species, we are already seeing a continued upward trend in the number of birds needing rescue and care.”
Other birds have exhibited strange signs of disorientation following spraying, as when Garlock spotted Cattle and Snowy Egrets roosting in the trees alongside Night Herons, which are known to eat Egret chicks.
Below: Injured Birds and Chicks. Images: Alesia Garlock
In early 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permitted the use of MA, despite the fact that the label for Avian Control does not include egrets and herons as target species. Garlock alleges that, since then, the spraying has violated pesticide law on two occasions. In May 2018, the Texas Department of Agriculture ordered the city to shut off the sprayers for improper use; then, in August 2018, the City hired a contractor who began spraying a stronger product called Ecobird (40% Methyl Anthranilate to Avian Control’s 20%) and received a second notice of violation from TDA for “pesticide use inconsistent with labeling.”
Garlock complained in April 2018 when she saw children playing directly in front of one sprayer, knowing the hazards associated with MA in sensitive populations. At that time, the City had not posted any warning signs near either sprayer unit, though exposure to the drift was unavoidable at both locations. Only when Garlock complained did the “grape extract vapor” signs appear near one spray unit outside the bathhouse, none of them specifically identifying the chemical in use.
Garlock began smelling MA again this year in February (I did as well when I visited Brackenridge mid-March 2019). When she emailed Parks, however, she was informed that they were not spraying in the trees where birds were nesting. And yet in early March, three new large sandwich board signs appeared in the area of the rookery warning people they were entering an “avian control zone” where a “device is in operation.” This time the signs were more strongly worded, advising against “prolonged presence in this area” and prohibiting “play in this area” and “climbing on top of bathhouse” (we saw all three when we visited, as seen in video embedded above).
Garlock asks, rightfully: “If they’re not spraying, why are there signs up warning people not to be in the area? [And] if Parks is not spraying, who is, and why are there signs up that don’t tell what the chemical is?” She reported having to visit urgent care again after noting that spray drift was coming from inside the zoo, traveling 140 feet over its surrounding fence line and over the river.
To get the City’s official rationale for bird mitigation activities at Brackenridge Park—in particular who made the decision to use MA and why—I emailed Connie Swann, public/media relations liaison for San Antonio Parks and Recreation.
The official response: “There are no current bird mitigation efforts at Brackenridge Park.”
Because the original draft of this plan proposed closing roads in Brackenridge and removing free internal parking areas—forcing park users to pay for parking nearby instead and shuttle in—the plan was met with significant community pushback. Many saw in these proposals a subtle privatization at work, an effort to evict the Sunday cruising, birthday picnicking, and Easter camping that have been mainstays of working-class life in San Antonio, especially within Chicano and Mexicano families, in favor of a new class of park goer settling into the condos and high end apartments up and down Broadway.
While vigorous community organizing did, in the case of the Brackenridge Park Master Plan, effectively wrench open the process to public input that eventually scrapped the more controversial elements of the plan, the transparency issues that have dogged decision-making about birds and pesticides in Brackenridge reflect the inherent problems that arise when public spaces are run by at best quasi-public management entities.
For a public/private partnership like Brackenridge Conservancy, decision-making about bird mitigation occurs in private board sessions, not city meetings with opportunities for public input. Where chemical spraying is at issue, this is not simply a matter of procedural justice; it is also one of public health.
“The public has a right to know,” Garlock says, “and to voice their thoughts and concerns. Especially because they are being exposed to chemicals. No one was told they were spraying.”
Despite its more private management, “Brackenridge still belongs to the city—it’s still a public park.”
And yet, “for some reason, we”—she means photographers—“feel they don’t see the birds in their plan for the park. Why would you want to go to a park with no birds?”
For the most part, Garlock has been a lone voice in the wilderness, literally. This is largely because the impenetrable decision-making around bird mitigation at Brackenridge has safely secreted the issue from public view. But as seen recently with the City’s now-nixed plans to execute Egyptian geese multiplying on the Mission Reach, a little public attention can change the outcome of closed-door decisions very quickly. So too can dedicated public oversight accountable to community input, as seen across town on San Antonio’s Westside, where a coalition of interests has organized for the past several months against the City and military’s targeting of another urban rookery at Elmendorf Lake Park.
Next week, in part two of this series, we take up the situation at Bird Island–where the City has recently started spraying MA as well.
Marisol Cortez is the co-editor of Deceleration.