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Coots are cute but also pollute

Times Staff Writer

For seven years, migrating birds known as American coots have taken up residence in the 15-acre, man-made lake that serves as the centerpiece of Bridgeport, a subdivision in Valencia, amid the thirsty bluffs of the Santa Clarita Valley.

For almost as long, the homeowners association’s board of directors has floated a simple solution: kill them. Some of them, anyway.

The coots are cute, in a motley sort of way -- black with a dash of white on their beaks and tail feathers, no bigger than a football, with feet so gnarled and oversized they might suit a condor. Their most notable trait, however, is less fetching: They poop with great regularity.

Russell S. Hoffman, president and chief executive of the Valencia Management Group, which manages Bridgeport with the assistance and guidance of the homeowners association, said there are about 500 coots living at the development. That’s enough to create more than 20,000 pounds of droppings over the course of a six-month stay.

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When the coots are around -- most migrate from northern states and Canada in the fall and return in the spring -- the sidewalks can get messy. The coots seem to spend the rest of their time eating grass. They can decimate a well-groomed, heavily watered lawn.

“When they first come there are two. Then 50. Then 100,” said one resident. “All they do -- constantly -- is eat and poop. My friend walks his wife in a wheelchair. Now he has the poop from the door to the back of the house. It gets in your shoes. If you forget and walk into your house, you have to practically tear up the carpet.”

Four times, the board has obtained federal permits allowing the development to “take” coots. The birds are not rare; U.S. and Canadian wildlife officials estimated a breeding population of 2.7 million last year. They are, however, protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which is why the board had to seek permits.

It’s unclear how many coots have been killed at Bridgeport. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service records indicate that 27 coots -- fewer than the 50 authorized -- were killed in 2003. In other years, it appears Bridgeport did not act on its permit. In 2001, for instance, a wildlife official attached a note to the permit: “Birds moved on.”

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But the board’s latest move to seek another “depredation” permit provoked a rancorous backlash in Santa Clarita; a local columnist dubbed the place “Bridgepoop.” Stung by the community’s response, none of the residents hoping to reduce the coot population would share their concerns publicly. Asked whether she would allow the use of her name, one said: “Are you kidding me? They act like you’re a murderer!”

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Suburban dreams

The subdivision was named Bridgeport not because there was a bridge or a port, but because the builders fancied the look of Bridgeport, Conn.

Behind white picket fences and fake boulders that hide utility boxes are million-dollar Cape Cod houses -- the real deal, sort of, with gabled roofs and little round windows that make you feel like you’re staring out of a fishing boat.

To many who live here, it is divine suburbia, with safe streets, great schools and big parks -- a masterfully planned community right down to the tidy piles of mulch around the base of every baby tree.

A cynic might argue that the birds were never going to fit in.

Sherry Sims moved here five years ago, drawn largely by the schools. It’s a nice place, she said, sun-splashed and crisscrossed by miles of walking trails known locally as “paseos.” The commute to her office in Los Angeles isn’t nearly as bad as she had feared.

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She does, however, have mounting questions about the development’s interaction with its surroundings.

Last year, she said, the newsletter reported that the homeowners association was planning to go out in the middle of the night to shoot coots.

“I wasn’t real keen on that,” Sims said. “I have two small children. What if my dog got out in the yard and they mistook it for some wild animal?”

She took her case to the board.

“They blew me off like I was some crazy nut,” she said. Then animal rights activists got involved, and the shooting plan was scrapped.

Last fall, the newsletter reported that the association would try again. This time the board voted to renew a permit application that would allow it to contract with a pest-control company, which would use a sedative to knock the coots out before euthanizing them.

Most homeowners thought nothing of it. A few, though, were flabbergasted. To them, Bridgeport had stuck a pretty lake in an arid stretch of a migratory bird path -- along the Santa Clara River -- and was then planning to kill some of the birds that had, effectively, taken them up on their offer.

“In my eyes, it’s like offering a piece of candy to a kid -- ‘come get this’ -- and then knocking them upside the head when they get to you,” Sims said.

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Randy Martin, another resident and a doctor of Chinese medicine, asked whether it wouldn’t be cheaper to just clean the sidewalks than to pay a pest control company.

There’s some speculation that the coots will survive the season anyway because they might head north before the debate is settled.

Hoffman declined to discuss the issue in detail, saying he needed the board’s permission. Steve Terwilliger, president of the board, wouldn’t discuss it at all. “I’m only committed to speaking when I’m with the board,” he said.

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Unwelcome surprises

Coots were viewed as a nuisance long before the advent of the suburb; according to state officials, a Modesto farmer reported shooting coots that were eating his crops in 1885.

It’s the setting that has changed. Instead of farms, the applications the government receives these days to manage coot populations -- one every three days or so -- come increasingly from country clubs and housing developments.

“As there have been more and more people living in areas where birds go -- and there is a creation of environments that are supportive of birds -- there are going to be conflicts,” said Alex Pitts, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman.

“We are seeing an uptick in these kinds of interactions. It’s inevitable,” she said.

Many of today’s permits, which require applicants to use nonlethal tactics such as scaring the birds with dogs before turning to more drastic measures, are issued in Southern California and Nevada, where development has pushed farther into desert pockets and other previously undeveloped areas.

“There are people who appreciate the birds and see value in them. And then there are the landowners who have these developments that attract too many birds, from their perspective, and start causing damage,” said Brad Bortner, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s migratory bird coordinator, based in Portland, Ore. “It is a difficult one; I’m not going to shy away from that. I don’t want to see people killing birds willy-nilly.”

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Growing problem

Bridgeport is not the first to do battle over coots. Similar disputes have sprung up with some regularity in recent years in locations including Santa Barbara and Menifee, in Riverside County.

But Bridgeport struck a nerve partly because Valencia has exploded, growing from virtually nothing to a city of 60,000 people in 40 years. Valencia will serve as a blueprint of sorts for Newhall Land’s next venture, Newhall Ranch, where the company hopes to build 20,885 homes. The early marketing materials note that Newhall Ranch will be built along the “serene Santa Clara River Corridor.”

The pace and location of development, said Teresa Savaikie, Santa Clarita chairwoman of a local Audubon Society chapter, “has hemmed in the river,” giving birds fewer places to land at the southern end of their migration.

“So any time you put in a big water source, it’s going to be attractive,” she said. “Birds have flown along this river for thousands of years.”

Savaikie recalled that in January, two days after she learned about the possible fate of the coots, a new sculpture was dedicated at a shopping center being built across the street from Bridgeport.

“The Birds of Valencia” features dozens of silver birds in a celebration of the region’s annual migration.

It will be placed in the middle of a man-made lake.

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scott.gold@latimes.com

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Out There

on latimes.com

Find additional material, including discussion forums, photo packages and videos, and previous installments from skid row, Manhattan Beach and the Antelope Valley. In the weeks to come, look for reports from Norco and Orange County, all at

latimes.com/outthere.


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