Coots Overstaying Welcome in Calif. Neighborhood

Correction May 5, 2008

This story incorrectly refers to a Canada goose as a Canadian goose.

Can coots (a black and white bird the size of a football) co-exist with the homeowners of a wealthy California subdivision? The homeowners say the birds have to go, but the plan to shoot them or poison them seems problematic with children around. And the coot is protected by the Migratory Bird Act.

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Every year, the coots flock to Southern California looking for sunshine. We're not talking about elderly tourist, we're talking about migratory birds. They arrive every year, but recently some of these seasonal visitors in search of warmth have received a chilly reception in one wealthy subdivision.

As Gloria Hillard reports.

GLORIA HILLARD: The first thing you notice about Bridgeport, a subdivision in the middle of the rolling hills of Southern California, is the nautical theme. There's a fake lighthouse that serves as a community center and houses that looks straight out of Cape Cod with white picket fences and manicured rose gardens. And then there's the 15-acre man-made lake.

(Soundbite of duck quacking)

HILLARD: It appears the homeowners aren't the only ones enjoying the lifestyle here. Ducks swim and splash, a Canadian goose is lounging on the grass, and so are about a dozen American coots. They are smaller than the ducks. They're black with white beaks, big feet and according to the Bridgeport Homeowners Association, a couple bad habits. Number one, they eat the grass, says president Brady Ballantine(ph). Number two...

Mr. BRADY BALLANTINE (President, Bridgeport Homeowners Association): The fecal matter from the coots is all over the landscaping and along many of the paved walkways along the lake, making it difficult at best to have a nice walk around the lake.

HILLARD: It's the coot poop that's prompted the Homeowners Association to seek a permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to kill some of the birds, which are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The board has obtained permits before. Brad Bortner, a migratory bird coordinator with the federal agency, says in 2003, 27 coots were killed.

Mr. BRAD BORTNER (Division of Migratory Bird and Habitat Programs): They were authorized to either shoot them or capture them and euthanize them with carbon dioxide.

HILLARD: They chose the euthanasia method and that would be their choice this time around. The current president of the Homeowners Association, Brady Ballantine says he's not keen on the shooting idea.

Mr. BALLANTINE: It's certainly not our intent to have any method used that would involve firing weapons at the community.

HILLARD: The Homeowners Association would contract with a pest control company to bait the coots with a drug-laced corn that knocks them out before euthanizing them. That caused some concern with Bridgeport resident Debra Volk(ph).

Ms. DEBRA VOLK (Bridgeport resident): What about the other birds? They're not going to eat that?

HILLARD: Ms. Volk was on a walk around the lake with her dog, Wolfgang. On this day there didn't appear to be any coot poop along the sidewalk. She suggests that I check out the dock where the canoes and paddle boats were tied up. And there was a fair amount of droppings, but there was no way to ascertain if they were left by the coots, ducks or the somewhat cranky Canadian goose.

Ms. THERESA SAVEYKI(ph) (Audubon Society): They go to the bathroom, like the rest of living creatures.

HILLARD: Theresa Saveyki is a former chairwoman with the local chapter of the Audubon Society.

Ms. SAVEYKI: You can't put man-made waterways in a state that's lost, you know, over 90 percent of their wetlands and not expect to attract wildlife.

HILLARD: Continuing my stroll, I found Linda Howard(ph) sitting in her yard looking out over the lake - a huge smile on her face. She's a new resident.

Ms. LINDA HOWARD (Bridgeport resident): It's always quiet like this too. It's just lovely. You know, it's just lovely.

HILLARD: Yes, just the other day she heard some talk of the coot issue.

Ms. HOWARD: For the love of God, I mean that's just absurd. It's a little bird poop. It's not going to hurt anything.

HILLARD: Time may be on the coot's side. The population has thinned on its own. Warmer temperatures may have signaled it's time to go home.

For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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