Note: First person post about the Oakland Heronry Rescue in July 2019 by Michelle Bellizzi, Bird Rescue’s Response Manager
On Wednesday July 10, 2019, I’d just arrived home from work and was getting dinner together, when The Call came in. International Bird Rescue’s San Francisco Bay-Delta Wildlife Center Manager Isabel Luevano had picked up a message on the hospital phone describing a sad scene: a large ficus tree next to the downtown Oakland U.S. Post Office and used for nesting by the city’s iconic Black-crowned Night-Herons and Snowy Egrets had collapsed, and numerous baby birds had fallen with their nests across a city sidewalk.
Luckily, I live just a short distance away from the site and was able to grab my partner and convince him that saving baby birds was *the* thing to do in the evening, and together we headed down to the site. On our way, I received a text from Response Services Director Barbara Callahan, who had picked up a call on our 24-hour Oil Spill Emergency Hotline about the situation. We were met at the site by JD Bergeron, Bird Rescue’s Executive Director, and his partner Travis (Bird Rescue has a wonderful tradition of wrangling our significant others to step in when needed, and all of our husbands, wives, and partners are angels!), as well as concerned locals and city workers prepared to clean up the mess.
We quickly discovered that the tree in question had split in half, and the City needed to clean the fallen branches from the sidewalk. The remaining half of the tree was in imminent danger of falling as well and would need to be removed.
One of the people on-site was Shirl Simpson, the Branch Manager of the Post Office, and it only took a few moments for Shirl to become one of my favorite people in the world. Upon seeing the downed tree, the nestlings, and the remaining bird nests in the tree, Shirl said unequivocally: “We are going to save these birds – these are OUR birds, and we’re not going to let anything happen to them.” Shirl was the person who had contacted our Emergency Line – she had remembered a Channel 7 story on Bird Rescue and went to “Seven on Your Side” to find our number.
The sight of the tree was intimidating and heartbreaking: half of the tree was down with baby birds in the branches on the ground, and the half that remained standing had approximately 40 nests visible in the canopy…which was 30 feet up and inaccessible without a cherry picker.
On Wednesday evening, our job was clear: rescue the babies that had fallen and clear the sidewalk, and work on a plan for the remaining tree on Thursday. We sprang into action working alongside the Oakland City workers, carefully searching through the downed branches to extract any babies and handing the cleared branches to the city workers for chipping. We rescued 18 baby herons and egrets, and cleared the downed half of the tree just before dark. The birds were taken back to our Fairfield facility by 9:30 pm.
Later on Thursday and Friday, JD and I returned to the site to collect additional birds and to oversee the complete removal of the tree. Because the tree itself was on Postal Service property, Shirl hired Davey Tree service to remove the birds from their nests and capture unflighted birds in the tree canopy *and* cut the tree in sections as they removed the birds.
JD and I stayed on the ground playing outfielder, collecting the birds from the workers in the picker, and identifying areas in the canopy with birds so the worker was aware of birds moving through the foliage and nest areas. Because of the slow nature of the work, birds were transported to the facility midday and in the evening.
Interestingly, as the workers moved through the tree south to north, the birds got older! Apparently most of the nests on the south side of the tree were nestlings, and the north side of the tree housed the birds that were **just about ready to fledge**. As less and less tree was available to hide in, the birds congregated at the north edge and several proved to be good fliers and able to fly from tree to tree, and the decision was made to not capture them. By noon on Friday, the last branch had been cut, and the last birds were driven to our center so the real work could begin!
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