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Bird feeding feud heads toward court

One neighbor feeds the birds who infest the other's trees. The long-running tiff is escalating into a legal battle.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published September 21, 2003

HERNANDO BEACH - Many a morning has begun in this mostly peaceful corner of Hernando County with rustling and cooing atop bowed power lines. Hundreds of beaks stare down a 12-inch terra cotta dish perched on a concrete slab along a man-made canal.

Suddenly, they swoop like a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock movie when Chuck Butler steps outside. Butler totes a giant seed bag. He fills the pan in a ritual that has grown into the highlight of the 80-year-old's day, although he can no longer pick out the doves from the sparrows from the starlings.

Next door, Edward Renna spends many of his mornings pruning his homegrown Garden of Eden, which smells, depending on the time of year, of tangy, plump grapefruits, pears, tangelos, lemons, limes, navel oranges or figs. Renna's trees, a rarity in Hernando Beach, have also attracted several generations of well-fed wild birds whose empty nests he plucks from branches with a grumble.

Between Butler's seed and Renna's fruit, the birds of Hernando Beach have never had it so good.

But Renna is exhausted from chasing feathered foes from his fresh fruit and cleaning bird poop off his sailboat, roof and sidewalk.

Renna, 66, is seeking a court injunction, which once and for all would stop Butler and his wife from feeding the birds. According to the small claims suit, filed in Hernando County Circuit Court in June, Renna also wants $5,000 in damages for what the birds have done to his property, sailboat and fruit trees - and for mental anguish.

"When they feed these birds, the whole sky fills with them; they're on the power lines all the way down the block," said Renna, a Lakeland contractor who spends Thursdays through Sundays at his quaint Hernando Beach one-story cottage. "They're not feeding 10 or 20 or 50 birds. I've counted 200 of them."

The Butlers call Renna a cranky old man who is embarrassing the neighborhood.

"He just doesn't like animals, I guess," said Marian Butler, 79, who three years ago moved her disabled husband and son permanently from Temple Terrace to their getaway home, a salmon stilt house constructed entirely of steel, compliments of Mr. Butler's former business, a Tampa steel fabrication company.

Mrs. Butler admits buying some 40 pounds of bird seed a week, which her husband disperses. She doesn't see anything wrong with feeding birds.

Indeed, several Florida bird experts agreed that neither humans nor birds would come to any harm from overzealous bird feeders.

"A lot of people enjoy having birds come to feeders in their yard, and most people are not offended by that," said Ann Paul, assistant sanctuary manager of the Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries in Tampa. "Obviously this is a situation that has gotten out of hand, and it's a shame these neighbors can't work together better."

But the homeowners at 3260 and 3272 Gulfview Drive have never been friendly, they say.

They cannot agree how long the Butlers have been feeding the birds. They also debate who has lived in Hernando Beach longer - and thus who has more right to complain. Property records show they both purchased homes on Gulfview within four months of each other in 1979.

Over the years, Renna has made several attempts to rid his property of birds. None have worked. He has placed three not-so-scary-looking plastic owls strategically throughout his yard and along the seawall. He has exploded bottle rockets into the trees.

"I had to cut down a peach tree, they ruined it so bad. And can you imagine what they do to the fig tree?" Renna asked, walking around his yard in plaid boxers, a green mesh shirt and a dirtied baseball cap sporting the Renna company name. "She's feeding indiscriminately, and consequently she's also causing a nuisance."

In November 2001, Renna called the Sheriff's Office and complained that his neighbors' feedings were spreading West Nile virus.

"We went out there and explained to the gentleman that there's nothing illegal about feeding the birds," said Lt. Joe Paez, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, which has also received several calls from Renna complaining of boaters speeding down the canal.

Renna says he has asked his neighbors politely, several times, to stop feeding the birds. The Butlers say all Renna has ever done is yell at them.

"One day, I was feeding a heron pieces of wiener out there, and Ed yelled out to me he was going to have me arrested," said Mrs. Butler, a retiree from Hillsborough County government. "I yelled back, "Ed, you got no authority. You're just a jerk."'

Renna is asking the Butlers to curtail a daily activity they don't just love, but that they live for.

Almost every week, Mrs. Butler drives her husband and son to the VA Medical Center in Tampa, when they're sick or need medications. Macular degeneration ravages her husband's sight, and seven strokes have felled her son. Even the family dog, a 13-year-old, half-blind, patchy cockapoo named Boo-Boo suffers from glaucoma and skin disease.

Mrs. Butler, a fourth-generation Floridian, cares for and feeds the family, keeps track of the accounts, buys the groceries and necessities and is often too exhausted to clean the house, which is stuffed with clutter and smells sour.

The Butlers' beautiful escape is a balcony that overlooks the canal. When the weather allows, they spend most of their time sitting outside in cushioned beach chairs, watching doves, sparrows, starlings and blackbirds nip at seed or flap around in their two bird baths.

"We enjoy sitting out here, watching the environment," said Mrs. Butler, who has the look of a cheerful grade school teacher, but with a bawdier tongue. "We never expected anything like this to happen."

Marian Butler, the only defendant named in the lawsuit, has decided to fight for her family's right to feed the birds. She has hired Brooksville attorney Ken Warnstadt, who used to work for the Hernando County Legal Department.

"People feed wild birds all the time. I'm at a loss as to what's the legal issue involved here," said Warnstadt, who pointed to Renna's trees as the culprit of his problems. "The birds are going to eat someplace, and they're going to nest in Mr. Renna's trees."

Renna takes pride in his few dozen palm and fruit trees, which he planted when he first moved to Hernando Beach. Some of his palms are worth thousands of dollars, he said. He intends to leave a legacy of fruit trees for his grandchildren to remember him.

Meanwhile, Chuck Butler says he will continue to rise each morning and feed his birds, as he awaits a trial on the lawsuit in January.

"I know (the birds) know when I'm coming," said Butler, who can only make out blurry shapes since he is legally blind. "I just hate to see the little rascals looking at me so hungry."

- Jennifer Liberto can be reached at 848-1434. Send e-mail to liberto@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 21, 2003, 02:03:13]


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