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Commentary: Displacement, Gentrification And San Antonio's Bird Island

Bird Island in Elmendorf Lake was recently cleared of its nesting vegetation for cattle egrets.
David Martin Davies | Texas Public Radio
Bird Island in Elmendorf Lake was recently cleared of its nesting vegetation for cattle egrets.

For about 18 months, after the May 2008 four-alarm fire in the main building at Our Lady of the Lake University displaced my colleagues and me, my temporary office was in the Ayres dormitory.  My windows looked out on the parking lot and Elmendorf Lake itself, the most visible part of which was Bird Island — a massive rookery home to hundreds of egrets and other waterfowl.

The groves by the water used to rise 30 and 40 feet in the air.  They shaded the birds in the summer and offered a deciduous space in all other seasons throughout the year.

For us humans, in the wake of the traumatic fire, the displacement to another part of campus was rife with uncertainty. Was this new location to be our way of life? It did quickly become a soft place to land. As transitory as life seemed, the view of the rookery became in itself like the room of a house I could inhabit on campus.

The area teemed with life. Squirrels scavenged and chased other squirrels. We could see the usual kind of San Antonio birds, cardinals, blue jays, doves and woodpeckers.  Sometimes pairs or small flocks of ducks appeared in the parking lot or stood just outside the windows of the dormitory, but usually paddles of them dotted the green water on the other side of the cyclone fence. Always, the egrets were in view, the branches and boughs of their rookery sagging with the weight of them. It would be easy to fail to notice the egret. They are as common and present as sparrows and crows at the lake.  But one second of de-familiarizing them makes them as mysterious and majestic as any other creature.  The long “S” of the neck, the sharp knife blade of a bill and the puff of downy white feathers make them exceptional and regal.

And now the city is planning the eventual eradication of the rookery and the birds due to what have been characterized as the health and safety hazards the birds cause. Others believe that the birds just don’t fit in with the newly renovated park.  Dispersal methods started with the razing of trees and brush and are set to continue this month through the use of bright lights and loud explosive noises. Today, the rookery is blighted, shrunken down to the size of a mesquite tree.  A bare one at that this time of year.  And the numbers of birds have diminished.

We are not strangers to urban sprawl and renewal — those components of development thwarted sometimes by a city infrastructure that does not always align in the best ways to keep growth healthy or efficient. San Antonio has a history of gentrification that is surprising even as we traverse the very areas that represent our growth in the last several decades.

What happens to urban animals when their habitats are modified or, indeed, when the animals are simply kept away from the trees that were once their homes?

Human beings tend to look at the landscape as a place that holds humans, not realizing the complex ecosystem that we comprise along with other species.

In mixed-species colonies, egrets are often the first to arrive, and their presence may induce nesting among other species. That certainly occurred symbolically for us in the days after the fire as we moved our books and computers into the dorm offices. It felt somehow like we moved in on the convivial egrets and the other birds and the beginning of having to adapt to a new space and missing the old one.

Today, I have a new office and my windows no longer look out on the lake — what was once Bird Island. The sightings of birds are infrequent.   When I do spy an errant egret as I walk across campus, I’m moved by the rare and spectacular sight of it, knowing it’s been displaced, too, knowing it will adapt — as we did — and that it will find some other canopy where it will dart and dazzle and survive. And it is we who are all the more bereft for it.

Yvette Benavides is a writer and professor of creative writing at Our Lady of the Lake University.