Oakland Heron Tragedy Underscores Need to Pay Attention To What You're Doing

A black-crowned night heron.
A black-crowned night heron. | Photo: San Diego Shooter/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A grisly blunder Saturday on the part of a tree-trimming crew and a Post Office in downtown Oakland resulted in the deaths of an unknown number of black-crowned night heron chicks, and though both post office officials and the tree company are saying they didn't mean to cause any harm, Bay Area bird lovers are outraged.

The black-crowned night herons, a familiar sight in downtown Oakland for a century due to the nearby Lake Merritt bird sanctuary, have taken to building nests in trees along downtown streets, including a row of ficus trees near a U.S. Postal Service parking lot at Alice and 13th streets. As a result postal trucks have been anointed with heron guano in the past couple years, so the USPS called in a local company, Campos Tree Service, to trim the trees.

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The problem was that is the tree trimmers started work while there were active nests in the trees, killing heron chicks as they fell 25 feet out of their nests, and even feeding them through wood chippers. Stopped by horrified onlookers and then the Oakland Police, the tree trimmers -- and the Postal Service staff that hired them -- say they're horrified, and that they had no idea the chicks were there.

But to put it far more kindly than I really want to, I'm not buying it.

How many nesting black-crowned night herons do you see? If the answer is "none," put down the chainsaw. | Photo: Glyn Lowe/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Let's look at the facts. Black-crowned night herons are not inconspicuous creatures. The adults are two feet tall and noisy. The chicks are about half that size and, when hungry, even noisier. The trees being trimmed Saturday were less than 30 feet tall. If you can miss a bunch of noisy foot-tall birds sitting in a tree that's only 25 feet tall, you almost certainly aren't alert enough to be operating a chain saw.

Then there's the fact that -- as reported by Carolyn Jones in the San Francisco Chronicle -- the Campos Tree Service crew found some birds, "set them aside," and then continued to cut off branches. In other words, they knew birds were nesting in the trees and then went ahead and trimmed them anyway.

Thirdly, the USPS staff called Campos in order to keep the birds from soiling their trucks, which likely means the problem was current, which would mean the USPS knew the birds were in the trees as well, else where would the guano be coming from?

Oakland's city tree pruners know well not to prune trees during the spring nesting season. The trees in question are Oakland city property. (It would be interesting to find out whether USPS put in a pruning request to the city tree crews before hiring Campos.)

Here's a bit of tree-pruners' culture. When I was in Oakland studying to become a landscape person in the 1980s, there were said to be two kinds of tree pruning crews. There were "oak men," the saying had it, and "euc' men." To update those archaic and gender-specific phrases, "oak people," named for the local finicky live oaks, were able to gauge the kind of pruning each species of tree needed and perform it, with sensitivity to individual tree growth, seasonal timing, and aesthetics. "Euc' people," named for the local invasive blue gum eucalyptus, were able to speedily turn any living tree into firewood and wood chips, occasionally leaving a still-living portion of tree in place to suffer, grow poorly, and reduce property values for perhaps decades afterward.

Want to know which kind of tree crew you're talking to? Ask them how much they'd charge to top a tree, a horrible and destructive practice defined here. If the person you're talking to gets a pained but patient expression on her face and starts to explain why topping a tree is almost never the proper course of action, she's an oak person. If he offers you a rough estimate and says he can start Monday, he's a euc' person and you should say you'll get back to him on that and then leave without a business card.

Topping a tree, pruning off sections of a tree without any regard for how the living tree will respond to your injury, takes a special kind of apathetic inattention to the effects your actions have on the living world. Imagine just how much of that kind of inattention it takes to cut off tree limbs that have foot-tall baby birds on them.

Black crowned night herons are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, with stiff fines and jail terms attached to each violation. As Andrew Hughan of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife told the Chronicle, his agency is looking into whether prosecution is appropriate. Criminal charges may well result.

I can't pretend to have sober objectivity on this. I'm livid. Those herons are to downtown Oakland, my onetime home, as swallows are to Capistrano. Knowing not to prune trees during nesting season is as basic to being a professional arborist as knowing not to drive on the left is to being a California driver. There's no excuse for what happened Saturday.

Both Campos' management and the local USPS staff claim they're horrified at what happened. I say that's a load of guano. Throw the book at them.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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