Fire in the East Bay Hills, August 2017

On Wednesday, August 2, 2017, a fire started in the Berkeley/Oakland hills in the San Francisco Bay Area.  This is an area with a history of catastrophic wildfires and so the media and the public paid close attention to the fire as firefighters fought to contain it. 

The East Bay Times reported that the fire began on Grizzly Park Blvd near mileage sign marker 14 and spread to 20 acres until it was contained late Friday, August 4, 2017. 

Dan Grassetti, the President of the Board of Directors of Hills Conservation Network, monitored the fire while it was in progress and when the road was opened again, he wrote the following report about the fire and what we can learn from it.  We are grateful to Dan for the photos he took and for sharing his observations about the fire.

The Hills Conservation Network is a 501C3 non-profit which advocates for fire safety in the East Bay.  Visit their website to see how they advocate for reducing fire hazards without clear cutting trees and using pesticides.  

Million Trees


I was able to tour the site today and took some photos. The fire was split between an area that had previously been treated [by removing all eucalyptus] by UC and an adjacent area that still had some eucalyptus. The fire took out all the ground fuels, including the dead tree carcasses [logs] that Tom Klatt [of UC Berkeley] had left there from years ago. Apparently what the experts tell us about live trees not being fuel while dead trees being fuel is true! [Despite what Tom Klatt tells us about UC’s projects, which leave the logs on the ground.]

This area on the west side of Grizzly Peak is known as Frowning Ridge. It is one of the first areas that was clear-cut by UC Berkeley over 10 years ago. Destroying the trees did not prevent the grass and shrubs from igniting in the August 2017 fire. Pictures of that area before and after the trees were destroyed are available here: https://milliontrees.me/2013/06/08/guest-article-about-fema-projects-by-a-student-of-the-forest/
When UCB destroys trees, they leave the logs lying on the ground. Note that some of those logs burned in the August 2017 fire.

You will note that the fire burned under a number of trees, including Monterey pines and eucalyptus without igniting them. This is the same pattern we have seen in every fire site we’ve walked since the ’91 disaster.

On the east side of Grizzly Peak where eucalypts are still standing, the fire burned the understory and scorched the trunks of the trees, but did not ignite the trees. We have seen that pattern several times in past fires since 1991.

The lessons seem clear. Roadside party sites attract folks who start fires. If you’re going to have these zones you pretty much have to create a vegetation free zone a goodly distance from these sites. What burns in a wild land fire are the ground level fine fuels. Tall trees provide shade which tends to lessen the amount of ground level fine fuels.

Dan Grassetti, Hills Conservation Network

August 5, 2017


Addendum:  It’s foggy in the East Bay Hills today, August 6, 2017.  At midday, Frowning Ridge is barely visible through the fog. 

 

 Across the road, in Tilden Park, the trail is muddy under the trees that are dripping the fog from above.   The moist ground prevents fires from igniting and spreading.

 

A few trees were cut down by fire fighters on the east side of Grizzly Peak, in Tilden Park.  Their stumps are visible.

 

The trees that were cut down have been cut into pieces and stacked beside the road.  You can see that the bark of trees is charred by the fire in places, but the heart of the tree did not burn.

 

Million Trees

Another legal victory in the long fight to save our urban forest

The Hills Conservation Network (HCN) has won the third legal battle against the many attempts to destroy the urban forest in the East Bay.  Every lawsuit they have filed has resulted in significant victories that have prevented three public land managers from destroying as many trees as they wanted.  We will briefly describe HCN’s early victories and end by telling you about their most recent victory.  Finally, we will explain the implications of those legal successes for the threats to the urban forest that are still anticipated.

East Bay Regional Park District

Frowning Ridge after 1,900 trees were removed from 11 acres in 2004.  This is one of UC Berkeley’s first projects to destroy all non-native trees on its properties.

When UC Berkeley clear cut all non-native trees on about 150 acres of their properties in the hills over 10 years ago, there was no opportunity for the public to object to those projects because there was no environmental impact review.  Those projects were a preview of the damage that other public land managers intended and they helped to mobilize opposition to the projects when they were formally presented to the public.

The East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) published its “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan” in 2009.  That plan proposed to radically thin and/or clear cut all non-native trees on several thousand park acres.  Along with HCN, I was one of the members of the public who objected to those plans for many reasons:  the loss of stored carbon and carbon storage going forward, the pesticides used to poison the non-native trees and vegetation, the increased fire hazard resulting from grassy vegetation that occupies the unshaded forest floor when the trees are destroyed.

Tilden Park, Recommended Treatment Area TI001, June 5, 2016. This in one of the projects of East Bay Regional Park District, in process.

EBRPD chose to ignore our objections and published an Environmental Impact Report based on the unrevised plans.  We repeated our objections to the project when the EIR was published.  The Hills Conservation Network filed their first lawsuit against the EBRPD EIR, which did not adequately address the environmental impacts of the plans.  HCN and EBRPD engaged in a long and arduous negotiation which resulted in a settlement that saved many trees in Claremont Canyon and some in other project areas.  EBRPD continues to implement their plans as revised by the HCN settlement. 

UC Berkeley and City of Oakland

Meanwhile, UC Berkeley and City of Oakland wrote their own plans and applied to FEMA for grants to implement their plans.  Their plans were more extreme than those of EBPRD.  They proposed to clear cut ALL non-native trees on their project acres. 

Once again, along with HCN, I asked that FEMA not fund those grants to UC Berkeley and City of Oakland because of the environmental damage they would do and the increased fire hazard that would result if the projects were implemented.  FEMA’s response to our objections was to require an Environmental Impact Study (the federal equivalent of an EIR) for the projects.

I joined HCN in recruiting over 13,000 public comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Study (EIS).  About 90% of those public comments were opposed to the projects.  Despite that public opposition, the EIS was approved with a few small concessions.  A few project acres would be “thinned” over a 10-year period, but ultimately all non-native trees would be destroyed on the project acres of UC Berkeley and City of Oakland.

HCN sued FEMA to prevent the funding of the projects as described by the EIS.  The Sierra Club prevented any negotiation from taking place by counter-suing.  The Sierra Club lawsuit demanded that EBRPD clear-cut ALL non-native trees.  The Sierra Club was not satisfied with the radical thinning that EBRPD is doing on most project acres.  These competing lawsuits produced a stalemate that lasted until September 2016, when FEMA cancelled all grant funding to UC Berkeley and City of Oakland in settlement of HCN’s lawsuit against FEMA.

That was truly a fantastic victory that was not anticipated.  In fact HCN’s lawsuit only asked that UC Berkeley and City of Oakland scale back their plans to use the same “thinning” strategy being used by EBRPD.  To this day, it feels like a gift.

Sierra Club’s lawsuit to force EBRPD to clear cut non-native trees on their property was dismissed by the same judge who approved the FEMA settlement.  The Sierra Club has filed an appeal of that dismissal.  Sierra Club remains fully committed to its agenda of destroying all non-native trees and using pesticides to prevent them from resprouting.

UC Berkeley’s response to losing FEMA grant

UC Berkeley attempted to satisfy CEQA requirements for an Environmental Impact Report for their FEMA project by writing an addendum to their Long Range Development Plan.  They claimed that their Long Range Development Plan adequately evaluated environmental impacts of their planned tree removals.  If they had succeeded, they would have been in a position to implement their plan without FEMA funding. 

The Hills Conservation Network filed their third lawsuit against UC Berkeley on the grounds that a brief addendum to UC’s long-range development plan did not meet legal requirements for an EIR.  The judge who heard arguments for a permanent injunction to delay implementation of the project until completion of a full EIR, agreed with HCN.  He pointed out to UC Berkeley’s lawyer that the description of the project in the long-range development plan bore little resemblance to the project presently planned.  The judge had done his homework.

The final chapter in this legal saga was that UC Berkeley attempted to avoid paying HCN’s legal fees.  California’s environmental law (CEQA) requires that the losing party pay the legal fees of the winning party.  This provision is intended to enable small citizen groups to challenge deep pocket corporations and institutions.  HCN (and its legal representative) had been adequately compensated in its first two legal battles, but UC Berkeley thought it could refuse.

The judge thought otherwise.  Not only did he require UC Berkeley to pay for its illegal attempt to avoid environmental impact review, he commended HCN for its public service:  “The Court determines that Petitioners were a successful party in this action, and that this case resulted in enforcement of important public rights and conferred a significant benefit on the public.” Yes, indeed, HCN has performed a valuable public service and we are grateful for the judge’s recognition.

For the moment, we believe that UC Berkeley’s plans to destroy all non-native trees are on hold.  They have several options.  They can complete an EIR for the original plans.  Or they can revise or abandon their plans.  We will watch them closely.

Update:  On June 14, 2017, UC Berkeley filed a lawsuit against FEMA and California Office of Emergency Services to reverse the settlement that cancelled the FEMA grants to destroy all non-native trees on UC Berkeley project acres.  (Media report on UCB lawsuit is available HERE.)  HCN is developing a legal strategy to address this latest move by UC Berkeley.  UC Berkeley’s lawsuit implies that they are still committed to their original plans to destroy all non-native trees. 

City of Oakland’s response to loss of FEMA grants

The reaction of City of Oakland to the cancellation of their FEMA grant was thankfully very different from UC Berkeley’s reaction.  In November 2016, they signed a contract to write a vegetation management plan for the purpose of reducing fire hazards.  That contract makes a commitment to conducting a complete public process, including an environmental impact review.  The contractor has already held two public meetings and an on-line survey.  We will participate in this process and we urge others to participate.  Sign up HERE to be notified of the public meetings.

The Oakland Fire Department has announced the next public meeting regarding the development of the vegetation management plan on Thursday, June 29, 2017 to provide project updates and offer an opportunity to ask questions/provide feedback. Project staff will be available to give a summary of the community survey responses received in March/April 2017, and to provide an update on Vegetation Management Plan development, methodologies, and work completed and underway.

  • Public Meeting: June 29, 2017, 5:30 PM – 7:30 PM
    Richard C. Trudeau Conference Center
    11500 Skyline Blvd
    Oakland, CA 94619
These are the Oakland city properties that will be covered by the vegetation management plan: 1,400 acres of parks and open spaces and 300 miles of roadsides.  Interactive map is available here: https://oaklandvegmanagement.org/

We are hopeful that Oakland’s vegetation management plan will be one that we can live with.  The City of Oakland should understand that another lawsuit is an alternative if the vegetation management plan is as destructive as their original plans. 

Although I contributed to the cost of HCN’s lawsuits (along with many others), I don’t have the stomach to engage in them.  Therefore, I am deeply grateful to HCN for their courage and fortitude in preventing the total destruction of our urban forest.  Although I was skeptical of legal challenges as the way to prevent the destruction of our urban forest, I am now a convert.  The HCN lawsuits were the most effective tool we had.

Final Environmental Impact Statement for FEMA projects in the East Bay is NOT an improvement!

On December 1, 2014, FEMA published the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the projects in the East Bay Hills which propose to destroy hundreds of thousands of non-native trees.  FEMA’s email announcement of the publication of the EIS implied that the projects had been revised.  Two of the agencies applying for FEMA grants—UC Berkeley and City of Oakland—had originally proposed to destroy all non-native trees on their properties.  The third agency –East Bay Regional Parks District—had proposed to thin non-native trees in most areas and destroy all in a few areas.  FEMA’s email announcement of the final EIS implied that both UC Berkeley and City of Oakland would be required to use the same “thinning” strategy as East Bay Regional Parks District.

After reading the final EIS, the Hills Conservation Network (HCN) is reporting that FEMA’s email announcement was rather misleading.  In fact, both UC Berkeley and City of Oakland will be allowed to destroy all non-native trees on their properties.  In a small sub-section (28.5 acres) of their total project acres (406.2 acres), UC Berkeley and City of Oakland are being asked by FEMA to destroy the trees more slowly than originally planned.  However, they will all be destroyed by the end of the 10 year project period.

HCN has analyzed the EIS and consulted legal counsel.  The following is HCN’s assessment of the EIS and their plans to respond to FEMA.  We publish HCN’s assessment with their permission.   Note that HCN is asking the public to send comments to FEMA and they are raising funds to prepare for a potential legal suit.


 “After having reviewed the Final EIS in depth and having consulted with various stakeholders, HCN has concluded that the Final EIS, in spite of FEMA’s efforts to improve it from the Draft version, remains unacceptable.

While FEMA has made some modifications to portions of the EIS in response to the enormous number of comments submitted last year [more than 13,000], the fact remains that if implemented in their current form, these projects would remove essentially all of the eucalyptus, pines, and acacias from the subject area. While for portions of the area FEMA is now proposing that there be a phased removal of these species, the fact remains that the objective is ultimately to convert the current moist and verdant  ecosystem into one dominated by grasses, shrubs, and some smaller trees. This will forever alter the character of these hills that so many of us have grown up with, know and love.

But worse than that, these projects would actually increase fire risk, destabilize hillsides, cause immense loss of habitat, release significant amounts of sequestered greenhouse gases, and require the use of extraordinary amounts of herbicides over a large area for at least a decade.

Additionally, by preemptively clearcutting 7 acres of Frowning Ridge in August of this year, UC not only made a clear violation of FEMA rules but also essentially negated the accuracy and relevance of the EIS. While FEMA acknowledges this in the EIS, they still want to move forward with a document that may no longer accurately reflect the reality of the current environment, the cumulative impacts of these projects, and any of the other factors that underpin the EIS process.

For these reasons, HCN will be submitting a comment letter to FEMA asking that the EIS be pulled back, reworked, and recirculated….at a minimum. Additionally, we are currently exploring legal options should the EIS be finally released on January 5, 2015 in its current form. One way or another, we are committed to ensuring that the will of a small number of influential people doesn’t result in the loss of a treasured resource to the vast majority of us (both human and other).

We ask your support in sending additional comment letters to FEMA [ebh-eis@fema.dhs.gov] and most importantly that you consider making a tax-deductible contribution to HCN. While we wish we did not have to do this, the fact is that the only way we can have a shot at preventing this irreparable harm from happening is by hiring lawyers, and that is what we will do. This takes money, so please do what you can either by sending a check to HCN at P.O. Box 5426, Berkeley, CA 94705 or by making a donation through our website at http://hillsconservationnetwork.org/HillsConservation3/Support_HCN.html.”

Thanks again for all your support,

Hills Conservation Network

Voters in the Oakland hills must make an important decision

Wildfire in California, 2008.  BLM photo.
Wildfire in California, 2008. BLM photo.

Residents in the Oakland hills will soon have an opportunity to vote for (or against) a renewal of funding for the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District (WPAD). A map of the Wildfire Prevention District (WPD) is available here.  The Hills Conservation Network has described the WPAD in its latest newsletter and is asking some excellent questions about how the revenue has been spent over the past 10 years and why the special tax on parcels within the WPD is necessary. 

The Hills Conservation Network is a non-profit organization of residents in the East Bay Hills, many of whom are survivors of the wildfire of 1991.  They are deeply concerned about fire safety, but they are opposed to vegetation management that does not reduce fire hazards.  They produce a very informative newsletter which is available on their website (here).  We are reprinting their article about the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District with their permission.

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Will You Vote “NO” or “Yes” for a Special Tax to Fund WPD?

That is the question Oakland residents registered to vote within the boundaries of the Wildfire Prevention District (aka Community Facilities District No. 2013-1-CFD-Wildfire District) must answer. The ballot measure will be mailed at the beginning of November. Voter information and sample ballots will be mailed in October.  If the ballot measure gets a “yes” vote from 2/3 of all registered voters (renters and property owners) within the WPD-CFD, a Special Tax will be levied for 10 years (until 2023-2024) on each taxable parcel of private property. Parcel owners will pay the $78 annual tax.  Condo parcels, multi-family parcels and undeveloped parcels will be taxed at lower rates.

Public and non-profit properties (such as those owned by EBRPD, UC, and Oakland), currently included in the WPAD, will be exempt from the Special Tax. The $78 Special Tax is an increase of $13.00 (20%) over the $65.00 per parcel that has been the WPAD annual assessment over the past 10 years.

That $65 per parcel doesn’t sound like much money, but it added up to approximately $1,700,000 each year, $17 million over the past 10 years. With the increase to $78.00 annually for each parcel in the WPD-CFD, if the Special Tax passes, the WPD will take in about $20 million over the next 10 years.

What will taxpayers get for that money? This is from info promoting the Special Tax: “Since the establishment of the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District, Oakland has not had a significant devastating fire in the hills, while other communities that do not have a dedicated service district have experienced large fires.”

Everyone who lives in the hills worries about fire. Although some properties are obviously not in compliance with Oakland’s Fire code, most property owners do their best to maintain defensible space. But it does no one any good to stoke fear of fire in an effort to renew a tax.

In fact, none of the communities surrounding Oakland (Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, San Leandro) have had a major fire since the tragic 1991 fire. Most of these communities are similar to Oakland in having wildland/urban hillsides.  None has a WPAD that takes credit for preventing a major fire during the past 22 years.  One might even consider the WPAD’s boast an insult to Oakland’s Fire Department [OFD], which is made up of skilled, professional firefighters.

Certainly the lack of a WPAD had little to do with whether there was a major hills fire before 2003. It’s more certain that narrow roads choked with parked cars, lack of water supply, extreme drought conditions, dry brush, and Diablo wind gusts exceeding 65 mph caused the 1991 fire to spread out of control.

Over the past 22 years, OFD’s performance has improved. Some examples: increased wildland training, mutual response area agreements, better communication with other fire agencies in the region, and annual response drills. We have new fire stations in the hills and annual inspections of residences and landscaping to make sure they comply with fire codes. OFD has a new fire chief from whom we can expect more improvements in fire fighting and prevention.

If the ballot measure to fund WPD passes, WPD services would be similar to WPAD services, including, but not limited to the following:

  • Goat grazing program on city property to clear weeds within district boundaries
  • Property owner incentives such as providing chipping and disposal of yard waste
  • Vegetation management to control weeds on city property; roadside mowing along major public roads; maintaining fire breaks
  • Roving fire patrols on red flag days
  • Public outreach; creating and distributing information and tips on fire prevention

In the year ending June 30, 2013, the WPAD spent $1,600,855. It’s difficult to find out from nontransparent WPAD records where the money went, that is, what your parcel tax pays for. Out of the $1.6 million+ , we know that about $357,600 paid for the goat grazing, and about $213,500 went to other activities. The lion’s share of the money (∼$1.1 million) went to “vegetation management.” We have asked for details of this $1.1 million expense, but at this point we have not received the information.

We believe that the OFD does the roving patrols and the housing inspections. We don’t know who does the roadside mowing; we assume it is done by Public Works.

Before you vote on the Special Tax, you might want to seek answers to these questions:

  1. If the inspections, roving patrols and roadside mowing are done by OFD and PW personnel already on the clock, why are we being asked to pay again for these services?
  2. Why are heavily wooded, brush laden nonprofit properties exempt from the Special Tax?
  3. Why should parcel owners pay the Special Tax when it will be used almost exclusively to clear City of Oakland land? We already pay taxes to maintain city property such as parks. Why should we be taxed again?
  4. Why should a Citizens Advisory Committee [CAC] have the power to direct OFD professional firefighters in programs (such as protecting native plants, even flammable ones) that the CAC (and its supporters) consider important, even if they do nothing to reduce fire risk?  Did you know that the WPAD/WPD wants to hire someone just to identify native plants?
  5. Why can’t the Special Tax funds be used to supplement OFD services in ways that might really prevent fires? Wouldn’t the money be better spent to hire more firefighters so there will be no need to have three “brownout” days each month when fire houses throughout Oakland—even in the WPD—are left empty and neighborhoods are unprotected? Wouldn’t the money be better spent to upgrade emergency communications, or buy emergency vehicles, or find a way to get more water for hills fires, help neighborhoods underground utility wires, or create a viable emergency plan for Oakland?
  6. The OFD has the experience, training and responsibility to prevent and fight fires. They stand ready to risk their lives for us. Why do we need another tax for services, such as residence inspections, roadside mowing, roving fire patrols, even the goat grazing program, that the OFD, PW or contractors could do without a WPD? Why should WPD money be spent on programs that have nothing to do with preventing fire, but instead promote agendas such as the dogma that native plants and trees resist fire? What will we really be getting for that $20 million?

Update:  Voters in the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District narrowly defeated the ballot measure to renew the tax that funds WPAD.  Thanks to those who participated in the effort to defeat this measure and especially to CFROG for organizing that effort.  Here is the article in the Oakland Tribune announcing the outcome:   http://www.insidebayarea.com/news/ci_24533813/oakland-hills-voters-reject-wildfire-prevention-tax

Another Eucalyptus Myth: Bird Death According to Audubon

As we have said in other posts on Million Trees, those who demand the destruction of non-native trees justify their demand by making many critical claims about them.  One of the most disturbing of these claims is that eucalypts kill birds.  Reprinted here with permission is an excerpt from an article in the April 2010 newsletter of the Hills Conservation Network which debunks this myth.

The Hills Conservation Network is a group of residents in the Oakland-Berkeley Hills who advocate for fire safety without clear-cutting non-native trees.  Most of the members of the network are survivors of the 1991 fire in their neighborhood.  Some lost their homes.  Some lost members of their family.  They are highly motivated to improve fire safety in their neighborhood and they strongly believe that fire hazard mitigation can be achieved without destroying all non-native trees. 

Please visit their website  to see other issues of their newsletter which is a valuable source of information on the subject of fire hazard mitigation.  You may subscribe to their free on-line newsletter by sending an email to inquiries@hillsconservationetwork.org.

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BIRDS AND BLUE GUM: LOVE OR DEATH?

Brochures distributed by various agencies in northern California state that the flowers of eucalyptus trees kill birds. According to these brochures, birds feeding on insects or on the nectar of eucalyptus flowers may have their faces covered with “gum” and die of suffocation. Luckily for the birds, according to one brochure, most of them prefer native vegetation, and avoid eucalyptus groves.

These stories are, of course, extremely upsetting to all of us who love birds.

The bird-suffocation story began with a 1996 article by Rich Stallcup, a legendary birder who writes for the Pt. Reyes Bird Observatory. In the PRBO Observer, he reported that, on one day in late December, he counted, in one eucalyptus tree:  20 Anna’s Hummingbirds, 20 Audubon Warblers, 3 Orange-crowned Warblers, 10 Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a few starlings, 2 kinds of orioles, a Palm Warbler, a Nashville Warbler, a warbling Vireo, and a summer Tanager.

That was an unusually large number of birds, even for Stallcup to see in one tree, but what most surprised him, he says, is what he found under that blue gum eucalyptus tree: a dead Ruby-crowned Kinglet, its face “matted flat from black, tar-like pitch.”

Years before, Stallcup recalled in the article, he had found “a dead hummingbird with black tar covering its bill” under eucalyptus trees. This was all Stallcup needed to come up with his theory about what had happened.

This theory is now stated as fact in restorationist literature and it is stated three times as fact in the “Wildfire Plan”/EIR issued by the East Bay Regional Park District in August 2009.

Stallcup theorizes that North American birds are different from birds indigenous to Australia. He speculates that North American birds such as kinglets, warblers, and hummingbirds have evolved short, straight bills while Australian birds evolved long, curved bills. Thus, he says, when American birds with short bills seek nectar or insects on eucalyptus flowers, they have to insert their whole head into the blossom, so they get gummy black tar all over their faces.

Misleading illustration from Stallcup article

We have great respect for Stallcup’s ability to identify birds.  But we have a few problems with his theory.

 

Australian Weebill. Credit: Stuart Harris

1. A bird-loving friend who has photographed birds in Australia points out that Australian field guides show birds with a wide variety of bill length and curvature.  When he was in Australia, he saw birds with small bills just like American kinglets and warblers.  “How do you suppose the Australian Weebill got its name?” our friend asked.  Many of us not so familiar with Australian birds have seen parakeets and other small small-billed parrots native to Australia. Weebills  and many other American and Australian birds with small bills forage on eucalyptus leaves or flowers.

To see more birds of Australia, go to this terrific website. It features photos of many small-billed birds. 

 
 
 
 
 

 

Blue gum eucalyptus flowers on tree, March, 2010. Credit: John Hovland

 

 

2. Where’s the gum? The flower of a blue gum eucalyptus tree has no gum, glue, or tarlike substance on it or in it. The gum in “gum trees” refers to the sap or resin that, in some species, comes from the trunk. Other species of gum trees, such as the sweet gum (Liquidambar) are common sidewalk trees in Berkeley and Oakland. The flowers on the blue gum eucalyptus are white or cream-colored with light yellow or light green centers. There is no black, sticky, gummy or tarry substance in or on the living flower. In fact, both the Ruby-crowned Kinglet and the Australian Weebill are leaf-gleaners. They take insects off leaf surfaces, not from flowers. If the kinglet had gum on its face, the gum did not come from a eucalyptus blossom.

3. A euc flower looks most like a chrysanthemum, with longer petals. Unlike a morning glory, the euc flower is not shaped like a tube that a bird would need to poke its bill into to get nectar or insects. A hummingbird is more likely to pick up a sticky substance from inside a cup-shaped tulip, poppy, or any of the tiny tube-flowers such as California fuchsia, Indian paintbrush, watsonia, or honeysuckle that hummingbirds love. Common sense tells us that no bird, even a tiny one, could suffocate while feeding on a euc flower or leaf.

 

Watsonia, Willow Walk, Berkeley, 2010. Credit: John Hovland

4. We have all seen hummingbirds poking their beaks into tube-like flowers. If you peel back these tube-like flowers, you will sometimes find a sticky substance on your finger.  You’ve probably seen birds, especially tiny hummingbirds, sipping from these flowers. How do they escape getting nectar on their faces? An article in the NY Times proves truth is stranger than the fiction of suffocated hummingbirds. The article explains that a hummingbird gets nectar from a flower by wrapping its tongue into a cylinder to create a straw about ¾ inch long extending from its bill. This means that a hummingbird’s face does not touch the surface of a flat type of flower such as the flower of a blue gum eucalyptus.

After Stallcup wrote his article in 1996, it was accepted by birders and eucaphobes all across America. In January, 2002, Ted Williams, wrote about the “dark side” of eucalyptus in his opinion column called “Incite” for Audubon Magazine

Stallcup, he wrote, had told him he had found 300 dead birds over the years “with eucalyptus glue all over their faces.” Williams wrote that the bird artist, Keith Hansen, who illustrates Stallcup’s articles, had found “about 200 victims.”(How did one kinglet and one hummingbird in 1996 add up to 500 victims by 2002 even though few if any other people have seen even a single victim?)  Williams and Hansen also describe the suffocating material as “gum.”

Williams, in that same over-the-top column, dares to contradict Stallcup, claiming that he has heard only one Ruby-crowned Kinglet in a eucalyptus grove, and has never actually seen any birds in eucalyptus trees. Yet he repeats (and exaggerates) Stallcup’s story about eucalyptus suffocating birds. The National Park Service, U.C.,  EBRPD, and the Audubon Society   have spread Williams’ interpretation of Stallcup’s story—apparently without questioning any part of it.

Stallcup and Williams are bird-lovers and writers. They are not scientists. David Suddjian, a wildlife biologist, has read Stallcup’s theory about birds suffocating on the “black pitch” of eucalyptus flowers, but in his article, “Birds and Eucalyptus on the Central California Coast: A Love-Hate Relationship,” he casts doubt on Stallcup’s claim that the kinglet (and other birds) could have been suffocated by eucalyptus flowers. Here is an excerpt from his article:

“. . . in my experience and the experience of a number of other long-term field ornithologists, we have seen very little evidence of such mortality.  It has been argued that the bird carcasses do not last long on the ground before they are scavenged. However, when observers spend hundreds of hours under these trees over many years but find hardly any evidence of such  mortality, then it seems fair to question whether the incidence of mortality is as high as has been suggested. Not all bird carcasses are scavenged rapidly, and large amounts of time under the trees should produce observations of dead birds, if such mortality were a frequent event. . .more evidence is needed.”

The Suddjian article is not generally favorable to eucalyptus trees. However, Suddjian notes that more than 90 species of birds in the Monterey Bay Region use eucalyptus on a regular basis. Additionally some rare migratory birds bring the total to 120 birds seen in euc groves. These include birds that use eucalyptus trees, leaves, seeds, or flowers for breeding, nesting, foraging, and roosting. A complete list of birds that depend on eucalyptus trees is too long to include here. We encourage you to click on the link to the Suddjian article so you can look for the names of the various bird species and note how they use—and depend on—eucalyptus trees.

Lynn Hovland

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Million Trees Webmaster:  Shortly after this urban legend surfaced over 10 years ago, I had an opportunity to ask a local scientist about it. While attending an open house at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, I was able to talk to the head of its ornithology division at the time.

He started by saying that although he had never seen a dead bird in a eucalyptus forest, there weren’t as many birds there because the eucalypts don’t offer as much food for birds as other vegetation types. (Those who bird in the eucalyptus forest without a nativist bias don’t agree with this generalization about a lack of birds, however.) He also said he hadn’t heard the claim.

Then, the scientist said that the story didn’t seem consistent with bird anatomy. He said that birds are capable of lifting their feet to their heads and clearing whatever might be accumulating there with their toes.   

Ten years and many walks in the eucalyptus forest later, we have yet to see a dead bird, but the myth lives on.