A black-crowned night heron resting in a tree near Lake Merritt. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

In May 2019, local grade-schoolers and wildlife conservationists attended an Oakland City Council meeting marking the successful end of a two-year campaign to make the black-crowned night heron Oakland’s official bird. Margaret Rouser, conservation manager at the Oakland Zoo, said during the meeting that Oakland has the region’s largest nesting population of these birds. “They’ve already chosen us,” she said. If the herons could speak, added a student from Park Day School, they would say thank you. JD Bergeron, director of International Bird Rescue, called the stocky, red-eyed marsh bird “scrappy and a survivor,” making it a fitting mascot for the city.

Cindy Margulis, then director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society (GGAS), which worked with students on the cause, added another symbolic dimension. Developers building a seven-story apartment building at 14th and Alice streets, set to open this year, had been spurred by the city and GGAS to hire biologists to lure the night herons away from compromised nesting habitat downtown and toward Lake Merritt. The developer removed the nesting trees bordering the project site, but life would only improve for the herons, who would soon nest beside the water.

“The developers who are creating housing for humans here in Oakland are also helping the herons get to a better home,” Margulis said. The official resolution, which councilmembers passed unanimously, stressed the same connection, saying the herons represent Oakland’s “tenacious and dynamic community no matter how many times they are displaced.”

But this urban wildlife tale of development without displacement, in which a native bird continues to belong in a changing city, fulfilling the dream of many Oaklanders, was already unraveling. 

At the time of the City Council meeting, efforts to attract herons to Lake Merritt from ficus trees around Oakland Chinatown were failing. 

A night heron peers into the waters of Lake Merritt. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Two months later, one of the primary nesting trees remaining downtown—a dozen or so had already been cut down—fell into the street, killing several heron chicks. The San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory (SFBBO) recorded a peak that season of 55 active nests, a sharp decrease from 156 in 2018. Fewer herons were nesting downtown, and none had embraced Lake Merritt. At season’s end, Oakland officials quietly nixed a planned third year of monitoring and relocation attempts. 

The city’s decision saved Holland Partners Group, the multinational real-estate investment firm cutting the trees down to make way for the new apartment building, from having to pay relocation and monitoring expenses amounting to tens of thousands of dollars for another year. In 2019, Holland Partners Group had managed about $3 billion worth of real estate.

Some heron boosters believe the project wasn’t given the support it needed to succeed. “I understand the decision but it’s disappointing,” said Margulis, who now works at International Bird Rescue. “We haven’t solved the problem.”

The wildlife biologists, conservationist groups, and city officials involved in the project acknowledge there is no followup plan to protect the breeding population of Oakland’s recently anointed official bird. Still, it’s clear from the squawking canopies of downtown Oakland in recent months that many herons and snowy egrets remain in the trees still standing, defying efforts to expel them. “They’ve got a good place to nest in the city and don’t want to move,” said Jeff Smith, a wildlife biologist at HT Harvey & Associates, the contractor that oversaw the relocation plan for the city.

Pam Young, GGAS’ new director, predicted the obstinance will endear them to Oaklanders even more. “They won’t be evicted,” Young said.

‘Bird as Icon’

The black-crowned night heron, or Nycticorax nycticorax, a Latin tautonym meaning “night crow night crow,” wasn’t always an avatar of resisting displacement. In a creation story of the Tongva, the indigenous people of Southern California, as the forthcoming illustrated book Waa’aka: The Bird Who Fell in Love With the Sun recounts, the species is the dour, cursed form of a white egret, showing the consequences of vanity and selfishness: The grey and black bird hunts alone at night because it’s prohibited from basking in the light of a lover it took for granted, the sun. 

In field guides, night herons are often described as hunched motionless alongside water, waiting to spear a passing minnow. In Oakland, they just as often wait on phone lines above reliable dumpsters filled with meat and bread scraps. They nest in teeming colonies known as rookeries. For many years Oakland’s population used the artificial islands of Lake Merritt to nest. In the mid-2000s, though, after the removal of non-native vegetation, they moved to trees in the Jack London District, according to Margulis. Complaints from neighborhood merchants and aggressive tree trimming then quickly pushed them towards downtown, where they established a rookery in the ficus trees near Chinatown. 

Night herons’ fondness for downtown Oakland is a “bit of a mystery,” said Smith, the HT Harvey biologist. “How they adapted to tolerate the incredibly noisy and disruptive environment is anyone’s guess.” 

Food is abundant, but so are predators. Passing busses rustle the canopies of their nesting trees. The setting is especially hazardous for young herons, who spend time on the ground as part of their early development. And because there’s no understory in the trees, fledglings who fall from the nest cannot climb back. “So instead of losing a certain percentage as you would in any rookery, you’re making all of the young vulnerable,” said Margulis. 

Director of Philanthropy for BirdRescue.org and former director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society Cindy Margulis. Margulis has been part of the effort to help relocate black-crowned night herons from downtown to Lake Merritt. Credit: Pete Rosos

In 2014, a tree trimmer dislodged several heron chicks from nests downtown. GGAS, seizing on an uproar prompted in part by erroneous reports that the birds were thrown into chippers, started an awareness campaign, inspiring the lobbying effort by Park Day School. The third graders’ petition, launched in 2017, described night herons as a symbol of the watershed, centering the infill and development of historic wetlands in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2018, I went to a GGAS class on herons called “Bird as Icon.” Clay Anderson, the instructor, similarly stressed the destruction of creeks and marshes. “For decades we treated their home as worthless,” he said. 

“Night herons have existed here since before Oakland was a city,” Jenny Odell wrote in her 2019 best-seller How To Do Nothing, casting them as a stoic, football-shaped embodiment of rootedness in place. They became relatable, appearing on Oakland Public Library cards. Oaklandish and East Bay Yesterday, the local history podcast, will soon release a night heron t-shirt illustrated by T.L. Simons, calling it a “celebration of those who refuse to be displaced.”

Phantom kwok

In November 2017, the team from HT Harvey retrieved 130 night heron and 20 snowy egret nests from downtown as part of the relocation effort being paid for by Holland Partners. Within days, a different crew removed most of the rookery trees, beginning with those bounding a parking lot between 13th, 14th, Alice, and Jackson streets. The idea was to simultaneously discourage nesting downtown during the spring-summer breeding season and encourage it at Lake Merritt, with the South Bay environmental consultancy working closely with city stormwater and tree management officials—and developers footing the bill. 

Holland Partners Group hired HT Harvey to meet a permit condition included at the urging of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. The condition, an expansion of standard permit requirements related to tree removal, called for an effort to create a number of nesting sites equal to those destroyed. Holland is behind another market-rate apartment building at 12th & Harrison streets. East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, which shared some of the HT Harvey expense, has also announced a housing project at the same intersection. Ray Connell, Holland’s project manager, who did not respond to interview requests, has said the relocation project cost his company $200,000. 

Early in 2018, the biologist team installed the nesting materials in trees at three sites around Lake Merritt, including one of the artificial bird islands, along with decoy herons and speakers that emit the birds’ signature “kwok” call. Throughout the season, the lake sites remained a prefigurative colony of fake birds and phantom barks marked by explanatory signage: “Effort Underway to Attract Nesting Herons.” Herons and egrets foraged near the sites, and even exhibited courtship displays, according to Smith, but wouldn’t adopt the dislocated nests, opting instead for other trees downtown near the trees that were cut down. “We changed their habitat but not enough to drive them away,” Smith said. 

For the second year, the HT Harvey team concentrated attractant efforts on two sites and, coordinating with city arborists, dramatically sheared more downtown trees to discourage nesting. But again, there were no results. Kristin Hathaway, a watershed and stormwater division manager with Oakland’s public works department, said part of the reason for ending the project early was the city’s reluctance to further trim trees. “The trees they were and are now nesting in would have to be so significantly cut, and our tree services division wasn’t willing,” she said. “It would be to the detriment of the trees and the aesthetics of downtown Oakland.”

Black-crowned night heron chicks rescued by International Bird Rescue. Credit: Cheryl Reynold

In a statement, Oakland’s building and planning department also acknowledged the city’s staffing and timing limitations. The tree services division, which lost half its budget during the previous recession, had “higher priorities regarding public safety and the necessary outreach for all of the trees that would have required significant pruning to drastically reduce the canopies.”

Margulis, the former GGAS director, questioned the decision to end the project early. There are discouragement techniques available that wouldn’t harm the trees, she pointed out, such as hanging shiny ribbons. Another year of positive attraction efforts might have been worthwhile. Originally, GGAS asked the city to commit to five years; attraction efforts for other local nesting species have taken longer. “In two years there’s a pretty slim chance of moving an established rookery,” Margulis said. “The city felt it was unfair to force the developers to eat the cost of another year of monitoring and attraction.”

The project is a public-private partnership with a nonprofit chaperone: GGAS urged the city to use its regulatory power to force the developer into a conservation pact. This saves local government money but it also clouds questions of responsibility. HT Harvey no longer has a client, and Holland has technically satisfied its obligations, according to a city spokesperson.

“By the herons nesting in other trees around downtown, the basis of the condition for an equal number of replacement nesting sites was met (even though the birds chose them on their own),” Sean Maher, a city spokesperson, said in a statement.

Hathaway of Oakland public works pointed out the city’s ongoing habitat restoration work around Lake Merritt, but implied the city would need pressure to specifically help the heron rookery. “When advocacy’s strong, the city often takes action,” Hathaway said. 

‘Who wants to see beautiful birds suffer and die?’

Margulis, who started at the Golden Gate Audubon Society the week of the infamous tree-trimming in 2014 and left the organization last year, emphasized that the ongoing problem of how to support the night heron belongs to everyone, not least the developer.

“It’s in everyone’s interest, certainly the birds, to make this work,” she said. If Holland is pleased to shirk the relatively small cost of underwriting HT Harvey’s work for another year, it’s shortsighted, said Margulis. “Now what’s going to happen is the people who move into their new building are going to see dead egrets and herons on the sidewalk, potentially for years.” Margulis continued, “Who wants to see beautiful birds suffer and die?”

The question wasn’t without self-interest. International Bird Rescue (IBR), where Margulis now works as director of philanthropy, absorbs the cost of inaction on the downtown Oakland rookery. In the past five years, the wildlife rescue nonprofit has cared for 325 night herons and snowy egrets at its Fairfield facility at an estimated cost of $125,000 for veterinary and rehabilitative services. “For an uncertain number of years more, we’re going to have birds brought to us from this rookery,” she said. “It has been an odyssey with this bird and me.”

Pam Young, the current director of GGAS, also considers the night herons nesting at Lake Merritt to be a conservation priority. The Audubon Society has designated them “climate-endangered,” meaning they’re projected to lose significant range if climate trends continue. Still, they’re found on five continents, and they’re vastly more abundant than other East Bay conservation priorities such as snowy plovers, least terns, or burrowing owls. Even if it’s not “critically urgent,” Young called protecting the Oakland heron rookery “time and resources well spent.”

Pam Young, Executive Director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society said helping the black-crowned night heron’s relocate their rookery is time and money well spent for the city. Credit: Pete Rosos

Meanwhile, the nesting heron population appears to be declining. The San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory found the peak number of active nests fell 64 percent between 2018 and 2019. Fluctuations are not unusual; temporary disturbances at one rookery can cause upticks in others. Should someone take up the night herons’ cause, though, data about the downtown Oakland rookery will be lacking. Without funding, HT Harvey ceased monitoring this year. Due to the pandemic, SFBBO didn’t survey the nests, either. So it’s unknown precisely how the trend continued into 2020. 

Not that you can’t spot herons nesting downtown. Many have gravitated to Oak and 10th streets, across from the Oakland Museum of California. The intersection of 12th and Harrison streets, where Holland and EBALDC both have housing developments planned, illustrates their stubborn commitment. 

Biologists pilfered nests from the ficus trees there in 2017, and then city workers sheared the branches and canopy as additional discouragement. Yet this past year, the foliage had regrown, and the trees once again hosted nesting night herons and snowy egrets, resetting the stage for a seemingly endless cycle of avian displacement—the development planned for the southeast corner calls for some of the same trees to be removed.