SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
June 20, 1966
Though it rends the hearts of the bulldozer boys, the 800 residents of Stone Harbor, N.J. are proudly devoting a million dollars' worth of oceanfront to America's only municipal heronry
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June 20, 1966

No Fly-by-night Operation

Though it rends the hearts of the bulldozer boys, the 800 residents of Stone Harbor, N.J. are proudly devoting a million dollars' worth of oceanfront to America's only municipal heronry

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Adam Smith or somebody like him once observed that the wants of man are insatiable. It now seems that in this communal day and age this theorem could be updated to include communities—hamlets and metropolises all have the galloping wants. A Pennsylvania town near which I live has been in a dither for a year trying to get a Neighborhood Youth Corps project. Mayor Lindsay of New York wants 500 million dollars. Pine Mountain, Ga. wants the Masters Water Ski Championship. For years a place called Portage, Mich. has wanted a General Motors plant and an Upjohn pill factory. A village in Virginia has been badgering the United States of America persistently for a metal marker which will indicate a Yankee general was bushwhacked there.

Communities crave things for the same reason that people do: they want to be wealthier, healthier, prettier, more famous or more notorious than their neighbors. Thus, Stone Harbor, N.J. wants, and has, a heronry—or at least enough of its 800 permanent residents want one to make the proposition politically viable. Which is why since 1947 Stone Harbor has had a city-operated rest home and lying-in thicket for 6,000 assorted herons.

Stone Harbor is a sedate seaside resort wedged between the hullabaloo of Atlantic City on the north and the honky-tonk of the Wildwoods on the south. Its heronry is no gimmick. The Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary, the official name of the place, sits smack dab in the middle of the town, occupying 21 acres of prime cottage and clam-stand seaside real estate. Not a few people have computed that if the heron home were subdivided it would yield 150 building lots that could be sold for about a million dollars at going Jersey shore rates. That is a lot of clams, even for 6,000 herons.

Why the herons go where they do and why Stone Harbor keeps all these birds that never spend a nickel for saltwater taffy or pay a tax bill takes some explaining in terms of the avian and human ecology of south Jersey. Cape May, the scene of the heron caper, is a flat, fenny, spatula-shaped appendage of land that dangles between the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay. At various times diverse creatures have established themselves on Cape May: Swedes, muskrats, smugglers, sand flies, bootleggers, white-tail deer, boardwalk operators, wood ticks and birds. Lots and lots of birds. Cape May is to bird watchers what St. Andrews is to golfers. Many of America's most prominent ornithologists cut their egg teeth at Cape May. Local bird clubs from all over the eastern U.S. count the year lost if they do not make at least one pilgrimage there.

The cape has been particularly famed for its wading birds—herons, egrets, ibis and their kin. The area offers miles of brackish swales in which these birds can practice their principal occupation—spearing small fish, frogs and an occasional meadow mouse. Furthermore, the barrier islands are covered with low scrubby trees that provide dry, secure sites in which the nesting herons can rear their young. But there have been two problems in heron heaven.

The first difficulty was that the birds ran afoul of the human instinct to decorate the person with dead animal matter—bones, teeth, hide, claws and feathers. During the courting season herons sprout long, gaudy plumes. In the Gay Nineties these nuptial feathers caught the eye of nuptial-minded ladies, who could grow nothing so grand themselves. Responding to this envy, plume hunters began to swarm over the heronries to get feathers for our grandmothers to stick in their hats. Though the hunters were not ornithologists in the accepted sense of the word, they quickly made the astute observation that it is a lot easier to deplume a dead heron than a live one. The resulting slaughter continued for several decades. Eventually conservationists became enraged, and the battle against the plume hunter was the first big campaign of the Audubon Society. Styles finally changed. Mink heads, alligator scales and bits of leopard, kangaroo and raccoon became the fashionable animal matter. By the mid-1920s it was not only unlawful but uneconomical to hunt herons.

Relieved of the pressure on their tail feathers, the herons might have made a comeback, except that they again got at cross-purposes with civilization, this time with the desire of city people to take shore vacations and the determination of shore people to accommodate them at a price. Among those who paid the price were the herons of Cape May. Real-estate developers discovered that scrubby thickets and unimproved sand dunes were valuable. Outsiders would pay big money to lie in this sand, dig in it and track it into small cubicles called Seabreeze Luxury Apartments. Down came the sassafras, greenbrier, holly and oak. Up went the saltwater-taffy machines. Away went the herons.

Where a good many of the remaining herons went was to Stone Harbor, which occupies about three miles of a dune called Seven Mile Beach island, does not have an arcade or boardwalk and tolerates only the minimum of fried-clam shops. By resort standards, the houses in Stone Harbor are substantial and decently spaced. Even more remarkable, there is considerable open land left within the town. Most of the unused land is owned by the municipality. Every now and then the city fathers clear a dozen or so building lots and auction them off—one to a customer, no developers, thank you. This system puts some money in the town treasury and at the same time scotches the creation of a summer slum. Stone Harborites have carefully planned things this way and are proud of the results. The town has the reputation of being exclusive and expensive, and its slogan is "The Seaside at Its Best." All of which sets the scene for America's only municipal heronry.

The Stone Harbor heron colony did not become a large one until late in the '30s, by which time the nesting thickets were being leveled elsewhere. Right behind the birds came the bird watchers, and by the end of World War II both populations had expanded considerably. Several thousand of the birds were rearing broods on the 25-acre tract between what the town arbitrarily called 111th and 117th streets, and at least as many ornithologists were brooding over the herons, uttering cries like, "This is the largest heronry north of Florida. It must be saved. This is their last stand."

While the herons stuck to their thickets, the bird watchers eventually flocked to a Stone Harbor town council meeting bearing a formidable petition signed not only by most of the Cape May birders, their friends and debtors, but also by many of America's most distinguished naturalists. The gist of the document was that now that Stone Harbor had herons, it had, like it or not, serious ornithological responsibilities to make the birds comfortable and secure. "Nobody was deliberately molesting the nesting colony," recalls Miss Sarah Thomas, who as the then president of the Witmer Stone Club was the commander in chief of the pro-sanctuary forces. "We were just afraid the land would be nibbled away by development without anyone knowing what had been lost. We wanted to make it very clear what a remarkable, irreplaceable thing the Stone Harbor heronry was."

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