For the birds

Posted: Nov 01, 2002 12:00 AM
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 certain extent." 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 children's hands. "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."