The Art of Waste Management

One Audubon chapter has a unique solution for raising awareness for nesting birds.

Around this time last year, the U.S. Postal Service's Oakland outpost had a poop problem. Their entire fleet of mail trucks was covered in it, all the time. The culprits were Snowy Egrets and Black-crowned Night-Herons nesting in the trees above the parking lot. The solution—in some nameless, faceless bureaucrat's eyes—was to have the trees trimmed.

It's a federal offense to destroy a migratory bird's nest. But Ernesto Pulido, the tree trimmer hired for the job, says he thought it was just a normal gig. He had no idea there were birds present when his crew arrived, wood chipper in tow, and set to work.

Then five little herons fell from the trees and ignited a media firestorm. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it might fine or press criminal charges against Pulido; then a local congressman got involved to open an inquiry into the Fish and Wildlife Service. The hatchlings were fine in the end—raised by International Bird Rescue and eventually released near the bay—but the whole affair was a big, unholy mess.

So now, a year later, Golden Gate Audubon Society is trying to ensure something like that never happens again. They’re raising awareness about the more than 45 pairs of herons and egrets nesting in 18 ficus and brisbane box trees lining the streets of downtown Oakland.

But first they had to decide how to get the word out. In nearby Santa Rosa the Madrone Audubon Society protects herons nesting on a busy street by covering the ground with hay (to break a baby bird's fall), and surrounding the median with netting (to keep them from traffic). Golden Gate Audubon wanted to do something similar in Oakland, but officials put the kibosh on that idea. “The city basically said no dice,” Margulis explains, adding that she wanted to “put a circle of compassion around these birds.”

So she and her colleagues got creative: They are covering the sidewalks under the nests with chalk murals alerting locals to the fact that herons and egrets were nesting above their heads.

“They notice the bird poop,” Margulis figured, so if they just put something prettier on the ground beneath the trees, neighbors might stop focusing on the droppings and start thinking about the beauty of the birds themselves. About a dozen local artists turned out to help draw the murals last Friday, and Golden Gate Audubon has been holding professional training sessions with the Western Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture, and even created a bird-safe tree trimming handbook that's now posted on the City of Oakland's website. They had it translated into Spanish too, at the suggestion of Pulido, the tree trimmer, who insisted on paying for the cost of rehabilitating the injured baby birds last year. He has helped distribute the information to non-English speakers employed in the industry.

Pulido, Margulis says, has turned out to be a strong ally in the campaign. She can’t say the same for the U.S. Postal Service, the epicenter of last year’s shitstorm. "I've exchanged 15 emails with them about putting one poster in the lobby," Margulis says. But even without support from the Postal Service, the project is well on its way to securing a safe nesting season for the birds.