August 2014
Homeplace & Community

Bird Jam

  Swarming cattle egrets have located a nesting place on the backwater of the Pea River.

Cattle Egrets have been the major attraction on the Pea River since May causing traffic backups in the area as people stop to watch the swarming birds.

Motorists might expect bear jams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or buffalo blockades in Yellowstone National Park, but no one would expect birds to cause a traffic backup on Highway 10 in rural Southeast Alabama.

But for more than two months – May to July, cattle egrets were the main attraction on the mighty Pea River that runs beneath the highway joining Brundidge in Pike County and Clio in Barbour County.

Exactly why the cattle egrets chose the Pea River backwater as a nesting rookery, no one is sure.

Ty Tyson travels Highway 10 to and from work, and was one of the first to notice the birds.

"On day, out of the blue, they were swarming across Highway 10 like bees," Tyson said. "They were everywhere and it was like that for several days – back and forth across the highway like bees. I’d never seen anything like it."

The swarming cattle egrets had located a nesting place and were going about the business of building nests on the backwater of the Pea River.

"The beaver dam has the water backed up and I guess that was the kind of place the birds were looking for to build their nests," Tyson said. "I guess that’s why they came to the Pea River."

The nesting place of cattle egrets is generally in association with wetlands along the edge of a lake or somewhere near water, which makes the Pea River perfect for them.  

Jim Armstrong, Extension specialist professor with the Auburn University Forestry and Wildlife faculty and staff, said, too, that the backwater made a perfect place for a nesting rookery.

"Cattle egrets usually come back to the same nesting place year after year," he said. "The nesting place is generally in association with wetlands along the edge of a lake or near water somewhere. However, if their nesting area is altered or destroyed, the birds have to find a new nesting place. Or, sometimes the bird population increases to a point they have to disburse and find new areas."

Armstrong said cattle egrets are originally from Africa and came to North America in 1953 and quickly spread across the continent. They are called cattle egrets in reference to the grazing animals they team up with to forage, mostly on insects disturbed by grazing cattle or other livestock.

Although grasshoppers and crickets are the cattle egrets’ insects of choice, they also dine on horse flies, owlet moths, cicadas, ticks, earthworms and crayfish, fish and frogs.

  The cattle egrets are constantly flying back and forth from the nesting area to get food. They fly off into the woods and to the fields. The egrets’ nesting rookery was so amazing that it became a tourist attraction. (Credits: Joey Meredith)

However, Tyson said he has not observed the cattle egrets dining on anything from the backwater.

"They are constantly flying back and forth from the nesting area to get food," he said. "They fly off into the woods and to the fields."

Chris Rich and his wife Sara ride their bikes in the Richland area and observed the cattle egrets foraging in the fields.

"The birds were on the ground everywhere," Chris said. "We would go over and watch them return to the nests. It was an amazing thing to see."

So amazing that the cattle egrets’ nesting rookery became a tourist attraction.

Sara Bowden, a Brundidge resident, said she first noticed the birds on Memorial Day weekend.

"We were going to a Memorial Day service at Elamville and I was surprised to see the trees at Pea River bridge coved with white flowers," she said. "I told my husband that I’d never seen that many flowers on trees. There were hundreds and hundreds of them. It was a beautiful sight."

To Bowden’s even greater surprise, when the couple returned along Highway 10, the "flowers" were flying back and forth across the highway.

"I was intrigued by those birds and tried to learn as much as I could about them and why they were on the Pea River," Bowden said.

"That area is surrounded by fields and cow pastures so there was plenty for them to eat. The males and females work together to build the nests. The male brings most of the sticks and twigs, and the female builds the nest. Woods are on both sides of the river so there were plenty of available building materials."

Bowden said the trees and shrubs in the backwater were ideal nesting places.

"So the cattle egrets were smart to choose the Pea River for their nesting place," she said.

But perhaps the cattle egrets didn’t realize that Highway 10 would be an observation deck for bird watchers.

"We would go over every day and watch the birds," Bowden said. "My daughter came from Columbus, Georgia, and said we should make it a tourist attraction. She had never seen anything like it."

Tyson said he was amazed at the amount of interest the cattle egrets attracted.

"One man said in all his 60-something years, he had never seen anything like those birds," Tyson said. "There were thousands of them. Specks of white everywhere. People would come and sit on the roadside in chairs and watch the birds. Some set up tripods with cameras with two-foot-long lenses to take pictures."

Those who have never experienced a nesting rookery of a thousand chattering cattle egrets have missed one of nature’s amazing shows.

Whether the cattle egrets will return to the backwater of Pea River next spring is unknown. The swallows return to Capistrano and the buzzards to Hinckley, Ohio, so there’s a good chance.

And, if the cattle egrets do return to the Pea River, Tyson, laughingly, said he’s going to set up a stand and sell hotdogs and soft drinks.

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.