by Rex Burress

There was excitement at the Altacal Audubon meeting about the upcoming Christmas Bird Counts. "The roadrunner of Kelly Ridge is back," I announced, but super counter Richard Redmond added: "That one doesn't count," referring to the fact that that lone roadrunner has picked a patio porch rafter as a roost for eight years!

"But it runs up and down the hill and is completely on its own," I replied. Does that not make it a wild bird suitable to be included in the count? [I found out much later that Richard's remarks had been a private joke with a competing lister.]

There was also controversy about a photograph taken at Lake Merritt of a scaup (duck), as to whether it was a Lesser Scaup or a Greater Scaup. Lake Merritt is one of the most civilized lakes you can find, with a controlled channel connecting to San Francisco Bay, a rip-rapped wall along the edge, and thousands of people walking the perimeter. The birds that occur there are prone to be a bit citified, and certainly the question might be raised as to how "wild" or "tame" they are.

But the question of whether to count "civilized" birds on wild-bird counts remained vague. Do the winter birds clustered around the backyard bird feeder count? How about the hummingbirds that depend on our sugar-water feeder in the winter? How about the waterfowl that flock into manmade refuge areas for food and protection? Just as people from many lands have merged in America, animals and also plants have readapted to various conditions all around the world.

The mention of Lake Merritt as a refuge for diving waterfowl stirred thoughts about my long association there as Refuge Naturalist and Duck Keeper over three decades. Even as I presently frequent the Feather River, I know that the winter duck pattern is being repeated at Lake Merritt, and that the placid lake tucked into the confines of the city is populated by more than a dozen species of wildfowl from faraway places.

There is no question that the Lake Merritt Refuge, oldest in America, and its birds exist solely because the site was declared a sanctuary in 1870. Without that formal declaration, the waterfowl haven would be just a park or other commercial concern. There would be no protective duck islands, nor fenced freshwater duck pond strictly for the birds, nor even a Rotary Nature Center, which is the base for the refuge operations, as designed by Oakland's first Naturalist, Paul F. Covel, and Park Superintendent, William Penn Mott Jr.

It is the certainty that the refuge exists and that waterfowl will continue their instinctive habits to go there that reassures those "who in the love of nature" look forward to repeating visits to wildlife areas. Much of the value of park places is simply in knowing that it is there and available for exploration.

Do we count the birds that are connected to that artificial, manmade facility? Are they excluded because they chose to bypass more remote lakes in the interior and frequent a site where the mechanized morass of a metropolis can be heard? The waterfowl adapt and some even swim close to shore where they can easily be seen and photographed. When Roger Tory Peterson was living, he said Lake Merritt was the greatest place in the world to photograph diving ducks. Some will even eat from your hand!

To the bird lover, and a high percentage of the populace, there is a vital joy in seeing those wild migratory ducks descend from the heavens and exhibit their beauty to city residents. There is a certain excitement and pleasure in seeing fast-flying, organized formations wedge from the sky and accept a place of safety where they can rest amid the clamor of the world.

Do you count the Canada Geese that frequent Lake Merritt even though they have altered their habits and remain in the area in spite of migratorial ancestry? That colony of over a thousand got their start from wing-crippled birds brought from Gary Lodge Wildlife Area. To hear them honking on the horizon and then see them glide down from the sky is a rare privilege in a city.

In fact, the State of California Gray Lodge also is an altered refuge, carved out of the farming land, maintained by agricultural machinery, pumped with transported water, and presented to wildlife as a human-designed habitat.

Even many of the plants occupying the marsh lands are of foreign origin. Do that grasses that inhabit California, most of which are introduced from other countries, count as part of the wildlife matrix? Some of these refugees, like star thistle, are not very desirable, but other species have found a useful existence even though branded as alien.

Consider the introduction of accidental or intentional animal species. The fox squirrel, opossum, Ring-necked Pheasant, and Wild Turkey are among the species introduced to California that have desirable qualities. But in some countries, the establishment of alien species has produced enormous problems - rabbits in Australia, monkeys on Mauritius Island in the Indian Ocean where extinct dodo birds once lived, and rats all over the world. The additions of House Sparrows (English Sparrows), European Starlings, and European carp to America are other controversial issues.

Would you consider all human beings in America as being alien? Even the Indian tribes evidently migrated to North America from Asia, and certainly other races have reached this continent by boat or some means of transportation.

What really counts when it comes to earth's biological habitats and their inhabitants?

© 2000 Rex Burress
December 19, 2000