Egrets Take Up Residency in Downtown Oakland

Birders seek protections by copying a Santa Rosa solution, but that fix won’t fly in Oakland.


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Photo by cindy margulis

Snowy Egret

​Margulis had hoped to install protective zones under problem trees this spring. She borrowed the idea from Madrone Audubon, which for the last three years has installed plastic orange netting, filled with straw—to reduce injuries, protect birds from predators and mop up poop—on a traffic median under a eucalyptus grove, where a heron colony nests in Santa Rosa.

But then Margulis ran into a series of roadblocks, including permit and accessibility issues. Unlike Santa Rosa, which charges $224 for an encroachment permit, Oakland would require $6,000 for a similar permit. And since Margulis had identified five zones in Oakland, Golden Gate Audubon would be facing $30,000 in annual permit fees, which Margulis said her nonprofit can’t afford.

Kristine Shaff, public information officer for Oakland’s Department of Public Works, said all permit applicants must work through the proper channels to move their idea from concept to a project. “The fees are set by the council in the master fee schedule, and only the council can waive the permit fee,” she said.

Margulis remained hopeful that eventually the city might waive its permit fee, in part out of deference to the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. “The way the treaty works, you can’t deliberately hurt them, or harm their nests,” she said.

But the city isn’t shaking birds, or their nests, out of trees, and Shaff pointed to issues the city would need to address before greenlighting protective zones. “If Audubon were able to initiate their idea of an animal safety zone project, a variety of considerations and perspectives have been identified they would need to resolve, including obstruction/access issues, maintenance, permits, costs, parking concerns, ADA needs, as well as others,” Shaff said.

Shaff noted that public works will assist Audubon’s public education effort by sharing and posting information electronically with its community partners.

With Audubon left to physically hang its own materials, Margulis felt that the city has demonstrated good faith. “Hopefully this will create a bunch of heron lovers in downtown.”

Stand looking up into a tree full of herons and people get curious. Passersby have already expressed interest in volunteering as docents, and Margulis plans to work with businesses, schools, and community groups to raise awareness of the birds’ plight. She also will leave rescue supply kits with interested organizations. “Each kit contains towels and a box, so folks can scoop up fallen birds and remove them from harm’s way,” she said.

She urged volunteers to contact Golden Gate Audubon if they are interested in counting nests, calling rescue centers, and educating the public about the birds.

Margulis said she believes that connecting with birds is a portal to deeper connections with nature. “There is a gateway to conservation,” she said. “It’s your first close encounter with a wild animal, usually a bird. It’s the marvel of watching a nest in the backyard, that moment you stopped to help a duck to cross the road, or the thrill when you heard those wild herons near Chinatown. These experiences can change the way we look at nature. Suddenly, we recognize how much vitality wildlife brings to our world, and we decide we want to share space, even in close quarters.”

Margulis said she realizes that it’s complicated to close sidewalks in Oakland. “But I don’t want the birds getting squished,” she said. “Unless we are able to contain them, there is no logical way to help them.” And while people usually resist giving up parking spots, Margulis said they might want to in this guano-filled case.

“We know poop is an issue in Oakland, because the post office incident happened because of poop,” she said. “Oakland is such an awesome city. I believe Oaklanders will realize how amazing it is to have herons and egrets right in downtown and they’ll take these birds’ welfare into their hearts, too.”

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