Art Flash Mob and other educational programs protect herons in downtown Oakland

Golden Gate Audubon Society is raising awareness of the heron colony and teaching people how they can help these magnificent urban birds.

The first thing you notice is the sound, a cacophany of squawks, clicks, and chirrups that rises above the normal city din of horns and engines. Then you see movement in the trees—a flash of white, a hint of beak amid the dense foli­age, and suddenly a heron or egret shooting out into flight. Welcome to downtown Oakland’s nesting colony of Black-crowned Night-Herons and Snowy Egrets.

The leafy ficus and Brisbane box trees of downtown Oakland are home to somewhere between 45 and 85 pairs of nesting herons and egrets, which hunt in nearby Lake Merritt and the Oakland Estuary.

Last year, the colony became the focus of national news when the U.S. Postal Service hired tree trimmers to lop off the tops of trees that held active nests. Several young Black-crowned Night-Herons were injured and taken to International Bird Rescue for rehabilitation.

In the wake of that incident—and the viral media frenzy it provoked—Golden Gate Audubon launched a multifaceted campaign to protect the nesting birds.

First they began educating tree care professionals about nesting birds. They produced brochures on “Healthy Trees, Healthy Birds” in both English and Span­ish, then organized a series of trainings for professional arborists in conjunction with the Western Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture. Information on bird-safe tree care is now included on the municipal webpages of Oakland and San Francisco. 

Last spring, as heron nesting began, Golden Gate Audubon placed durable educational posters in prominent places such as the Metropolitan Oakland Chamber of Commerce, as well as Chinese-language versions in Oakland’s Chinatown, adjacent to the nesting colony. These posters provided information on herons and how to help downed birds.

Golden Gate Audubon also led free public bird walks of the heron colony, in partnership with the City of Oakland and Oakland Public Library. Additionally, they organized guided tours for nearby schools and civic groups and marshaled a pilot team of docents to monitor the heronry and teach passersby about the birds.

The highlight of the heron program was Golden Gate Audubon Society’s first ever Eco-Art Flash Mob in April. Local artists and nature lovers gathered at daybreak in downtown Oakland to create big sidewalk chalk drawings of the herons. The slogan for the event was: “Chalk it up… to compassion for Oakland’s herons.” The goal of the flash mob was to inspire people to protect downtown Oakland’s nesting colonies of Black-crowned Night-Herons and Snowy Egrets. Check out this short video of the Art Flash Mob.  

All this education and outreach has made a big difference in awareness and appreciation of Oakland’s herons. Yet the downtown rookery continues to experience high mortality when chicks fall from the nest onto concrete or fledglings wander into traffic. It’s a bit daunting to protect such a sizable colony in a downtown environment.

In the coming year, Golden Gate Audubon plans to mobilize more volunteers for Oakland’s herons and expand their tree care educational initiatives too. Stay tuned for the next Eco-Art Flash Mob!

Want to help protect and educate about the Oakland herons next spring? Contact GGAS at

Via: Ilana DeBare, “Protecting the Herons of Downtown Oakland.” The Gull. Vol. 100 No. 3 Summer 2015

All photos courtesy of Golden Gate Audubon Society

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