OAKLAND -- A state and federal wildlife investigation is underway after a contractor hired by the U.S. Postal Service cut back trees home to an endangered bird species, injuring five young birds -- a possible violation of a federal law, officials said.

The postal service ordered the contractor to trim four trees on Saturday surrounding a parking lot at the downtown post office, where black-crowned night herons and snowy egrets have nested for years and defecate on mail trucks parked below.

Workers with chain saws and a wood chipper began the work Saturday morning, but it was halted when outraged residents arrived and called Oakland police to stop the tree trimmers, police said.

Black crowned night herons are nesting in the trees that surround the parking lot across from the Oakland Civic Center Post Office on May 6, 2014. (Laura
Black crowned night herons are nesting in the trees that surround the parking lot across from the Oakland Civic Center Post Office on May 6, 2014. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

Five black-crowned herons, an endangered species, had injuries consistent with falling from the tree and were taken to an International Bird Rescue in Fairfield, the center's spokesman said.

"Someone can't tell me (the workers) didn't know it. You can hear the babies," Stephanie Benavidez, supervising naturalist for the city, said while standing under one of the ficus trees Wednesday.

After being displaced from areas around Lake Merritt and Jack London Square, the shorebirds found an ideal spot to roost in the ficus trees surrounding the lot at 14th and Alice streets. They are a common sight in the neighborhood, arriving annually in April, Benavidez said. Evidence of the birds can be found on the sidewalks, where there's so much bird excrement that city workers must use shovels to clean up the mess, said Kristine Shaff, a spokeswoman for the city of Oakland public works department.


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They are so common, in fact, the city has trained its public works department to not trim the trees in order to protect the habitat.

State wildlife officials arrived Sunday after receiving a complaint and along with federal investigators are now are sifting through video taken at the scene and tracking down witnesses. So far there is no evidence any birds were killed, officials said. Oakland police, a postal service spokesman and the independent contractor, Ernesto Pulido, all denied that any birds were killed, disputing a media report that some birds were fed through a wood chipper.

"There's no evidence that any birds were thrown into the chipper, but we are still investigating, and it is a possibility, but we just don't know the facts yet," said Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, who added that the contents of the wood chipper will be examined.

Investigators will determine if the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a federal law designed to protect migratory birds, and their nests and habitats, was violated. The misdemeanor violation could result in up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine and $100 for any bird or nest that is harmed, said Steve Martarano, a spokesman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Pulido, the contractor, said he meant no harm to the birds and has called the rescue center to offer himself as a volunteer.

"I'm truly sorry about this," said Pulido, a Bay Point resident who grew up on a farm. "I grew up with more animals than people. I personally love animals. I'm fully responsible."

One of the birds had a fractured beak, and most suffered scrapes and bruises, said Andrew Harmon of the International Bird Rescue. However, the young birds, estimated to be 1 week to 3 weeks old, are now in "good condition," he said.

Staff writer Harry Harris contributed to this report. Contact David DeBolt at 510-262-2728. Follow him at Twitter.com/daviddebolt.