by Rex Burress

The Birds are coming! The birds are coming! I was reminded in early October that the migratory birds are coming. Sitting on the water at Lake Merritt in Oakland, a couple of dozen Ruddy Ducks rested, their cute little tails lifted high above the water, finding refuge after their flight over the rigors of the wilderness.

Soon Canvasbacks, goldeneyes, scaup, and Bufflehead will join the visiting waterfowl at the lake in the city, as well as along the San Francisco Bay shoreline and in more-remote marshes scattered in the Central Valley. Some of those places will host thousands of geese and swans that also journey down from the stormy northland.

Food for those hungry fowl becomes a prime concern just as food for the birds at Lake Merritt receives considerable attention throughout the year. Not only do those visiting winter birds at Lake Merritt consume available food supplies, but the resident Canada Geese and mixed ducks require seeds and vegetation, plus whatever bread products they can scrounge.

The increased Canada Goose population at Lake Merritt has created another situation - too much waste material - at least according to some opinions that consider excretion on the walkways a certain ruination of landscape values. Prominent in the complaints is the idea that bird feeding should be stopped to avoid the messiness of manure.

While it is true that sympathetic patrons supply large amounts of bread and lettuce to the ever-eager birds, the geese in particular graze the lawns as a major source of food. Bread, lettuce, and grain offerings apparently have not affected the health of the birds - at least over the period since the 1960s when I began working there.

There is no doubt that the Canada Geese have succeeded in adapting to the city. From a start of half a dozen wing-injured Gray Lodge discards in the early 1950s, the nesting success is reflected in a present population numbering close to a thousand. They spread throughout the park nibbling at the grasses, and also circulate around the Bay Area - at golf courses, along the Brooks Island shoreline, and on the Crab Cove lawns in Alameda.

The goose boldness is similar to the boldness of a flock of Wild Turkeys at the edge of Oroville, California. Home owners are upset that the turkeys probe their lawns, defecate on driveways, and fly to their rooftops, not fully appreciating the rare opportunity for close viewing of a beautiful wild bird.

Accepting defecation at Lake Merritt seems a small price to pay for the regal wonder of those magnificent wings fanning the skies over a mechanized metropolis. Their presence creates a bird watchers' paradise and spreads a wild flavor far and wide. Yet, there are those who do not appreciate some of the finer offerings of nature and prefer recreational playgrounds.

The City of Oakland has generously provided grain food for the Lake Merritt birds since 1917, and tons of milo have been distributed, especially at the daily 3:30 PM feeding, when the traditional bucket of grain entices birds close to the shoreline for easy viewing. The friendship gesture does not alter the natural patterns of feeding - the migrant ducks punctually depart in the spring.

Even though part of the criticism concerns concentrated birds fouling the water, that is a part of every refuge where flocks gather together. No doubt the accelerated nutrients encourage the growth of summer algae and control has been undertaken, but isn't the privilege of having birds nearby worth some work?

Ultimately, the people must adjust to the presence of the birds, for habitat must be made available or the species will decline. Experienced Refuge Naturalist Stephanie Benevidez recognizes the value of live birds at a refuge - especially in the city where nature-observing opportunities are limited. "Animals have always been here," she said. "Don't be pushing the animals off the land!"

Admittedly, city pigeons (or Rock Doves) have multiplied to the point of what some consider overpopulation. In the 1960s, pigeon control was practiced at the lake, but then trapping was banned. Now large flocks descend on the refuge to glean whatever food they can find.

Over the years the refuge has been saturated with domestic geese that people dump at the duck pond, and extensive shuffling has been practiced to keep a limited number for comparison at a wild bird sanctuary. There are also the blackbirds, sparrows, and starlings that are impossible to regulate.

Another free-flying opportunistic bird is the gull. Various species appear at the lake to participate in the brown bag game, and they also will consume just about any kind of meaty garbage. During a wet winter, they "dance" on saturated lawns to stir up the earthworms. You wonder how they know when the worms are close to the surface ... or even how they know to follow the salmon from the ocean to the Feather River, where they can feed on dying fish.

Even the egrets and Black-crowned Night-Herons have altered their habits in order to partake in the 3:30 PM offering of fish at Lake Merritt. The fish were originally intended for the famous American White Pelicans, Helen and Hector, but since their death the sampling of smelt has continued for the Brown Pelicans and egrets. There is no better place in all the world to see closeups of such beautiful water birds - an opportunity that enables the Naturalist Staff to emphasize environmental education.

© 2000 Rex Burress
October 3, 2000