For the birds
Debra J. Saunders
11/1/2002 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
If Oakland voters approve a bond measure to clean up Lake
Merritt, will they get a greatly improved urban park or a $200 million
litter box for birds? That's the question that you have to ask about Measure
DD, which would spend $198 million over 20 years on Lake Merritt, the
Oakland estuary and the waterfront.
This is a great time of year to enjoy the lake. Birds flock to
the lakeshore lawns under clear autumn skies. Only near the bird-bath area
is the smell particularly -- pardon the pun -- fowl, but the eau du algae
scent isn't as pungent as it can be at the height of the midsummer bloom. A
whiff and you understand why the City Council set cleaning the water as a
priority for making "the jewel of the city" shinier.
This summer, however, the lake's goose population neared 1,900
birds, according to the Lake Merritt Institute -- up from 300 to 400 in the
mid '90s. Walking around parts of the lake was like walking to the
convertible in Hitchcock's movie "The Birds" -- with geese closing in
instead of gulls. Goose excrement was everywhere. (The institute reports
that each bird defecates as much as an adult human.)
I asked Mayor Jerry Brown what could be done, and he quipped
that the city could let dogs run free. (Dao Mayor has a black lab named
Dharma.) Oakland residents joke about letting the homeless hunt for their
dinner. Or giving city restaurants an occasional chance to add goose and
duck to their menus. Or make it a business: The Oakland Pate Co., featuring
Merritt foie gras.
The law will allow none of the above. Lake Merritt is a national
bird sanctuary. In general, it's illegal to mess with migratory birds.
Councilwoman Jane Brunner, who helped push through Measure DD,
points to measures that can be taken to clean up the lake. The city will
move the tot lot away from the bird bath area. Not placing lawns next to the
shoreline should discourage birds from congregating on the grass. The city
is looking at buying a special bird-poop vacuum.
In addition, the law allows the city to move geese that are not
migratory elsewhere, said Brunner. "The other solution," said Brunner, "is
to leave it like this and let it get worse and worse."
But as we walked along the lake Tuesday afternoon, we collided
with reality -- for many park aficionados, Lake Merritt is for the birds.
Resident refuge naturalist Stephanie Benavidez cites federal law, then
notes, "People should come to enjoy this park. But it is a wildlife refuge.
They shouldn't look to increase recreational activities."
What about when there are too many birds -- can't Oakland move
out nonmigratory ducks and geese?
"Take away the people."
Even the pigeons?
"Pigeons are rock doves . . . Yes, they are protected to a
And: "It's their home."
Yes, it's their home, but do voters know that? They didn't name
Proposition DD the Clean Up the Bird Sanctuary and Add a Shoreline Walkway
Measure. It's "educational and recreational facilities for children," "clean
up Lake Merritt, " and fund bike paths and walkways on the waterfront.
Campaign brochures tout DD for funding "clean water." They don't tout
befouled (or "be-fowled") grass.
Oakland resident Laura Mazer started taking her daughter
Meredith to the lake when she was crawling. "Then, I stopped," said Mazer.
"I said enough, I am not taking you back here until you can walk." Still,
it's dirty and smelly and Mazer constantly watches parents wiping their
"If they can do something about the birds, then the whole thing
comes together," she added. "But if they're not going to do something about
the birds, it's just not worth it."