A dozen third-graders crowded around the microphone in Oakland’s imposing City Hall this past Tuesday, waving paper-bag puppets and hand-drawn posters of Black-crowned Night-Herons. After one student spoke on behalf of the group, a city councilman asked if the others agreed the night-heron should become the official city bird of Oakland.
“Woo hoo!” the kids yelled, sounding almost as loud—almost—as a city tree filled with dozens of these noisy colonial nesters.
The vote to make the night-heron the city’s first official bird brought a successful conclusion to a two-year campaign by heron-loving third-graders at the local Park Day School. The kids’ advocacy for the dramatic black-and-white birds began when they learned about Golden Gate Audubon Society’s efforts to save the lives of Oakland’s night-heron population from a relatively new threat.
“The babies have been falling out of (downtown) trees, and we wanted to help them not fall onto the concrete,” says Chase Taylor, 9, a Park Day School third-grader attending the big vote.
Oakland is home to the largest Black-crowned Night-Heron rookery in the Bay Area. The wading birds traditionally nested alongside San Francisco Bay and Oakland’s historic Lake Merritt, which was designated in 1870 as the first official wildlife refuge in the country. But in recent decades, driven by urban development, they shifted their rookeries into thick ficus trees on busy downtown streets.
With their bright red eyes and striking plumage, the night-herons are easy for city dwellers to recognize. They delight downtown residents and office workers, especially during springtime nesting season when hundreds of the birds can be seen and heard squawking from the trees above. (Drivers parked underneath the trees notice the birds for less delightful reasons.)
Problems arise, though, when unfledged young fall from their nests. With no cushioning understory, many break bones in the fall or risk death from exposure and traffic.
Golden Gate Audubon became aware of the herons’ plight in 2015, after tree trimmers destroyed a number of active nests, leaving baby birds on the sidewalk. The following spring, Audubon formed a partnership with the Oakland Zoo and International Bird Rescue to retrieve fallen young, treat their injuries, and rehabilitate them for eventual release into suitable habitat. In 2017, the partnership recovered and treated 63 young birds—both night-herons and Snowy Egrets, which also nest in the downtown trees.
At Park Day, third-graders were already studying birds as part of their science curriculum when they learned about Audubon’s rescue program for the baby herons, which “look like dinosaurs,” says third-grader and vote attendee Jackson Pezanoski Markatos, 9. The school invited Golden Gate Audubon Executive Director Cindy Margulis to speak with students about the night-herons’ plight.
“We asked the kids, ‘What can we do to help?’” says third-grade teacher Devin Homme. "They came up with ideas like, ‘What if it became a famous bird in Oakland?’ and “What if we talked to the government?’”
Soon after, the students launched an online petition to name the Black-crowned Night-Heron as the official city bird. They filmed a video about it and met with City Councilman Dan Kalb. “I’d heard of the bird before but didn’t know it had special significance to Oakland,” Kalb recalls. “I asked them, ‘Do other cities have official birds?’ It turns out a lot of them do.”
Finally, this week, the designation of an Oakland City Bird came to a City Council vote. The Park Day third-graders and their parents were joined at the microphone by Audubon members, representatives of the Oakland Zoo and International Bird Rescue, and even the developers funding the heron relocation effort.
The resolution passed unanimously. Children and adults cheered. Hand-puppets waved.
“The kids got a good lesson in politics—that things don’t happen right away,” says Homme, who attended the council meeting with his students. “The hardest part was teaching them not to expect instant gratification.”
Indeed, the Tuesday night meeting was third-grader Vivian Green’s third trip to lobby City Hall on behalf of the night-herons.
“I’m really happy because this has been going on for two years, since the fifth-graders were in third grade,” said Vivian, 9, after the vote. “I bet if the Black-crowned Night-Heron could speak, it would definitely say thank you.”