Critics are saying that young herons were removed from their nest during a tree-trimming project at a post office in Oakland and fed into a wood chipper.>
Postal officials and the landscaping company deny the claims, but acknowledge someone removed the birds from their nest, leaving one with a fractured jaw.
Landscapers were trimming overgrown branches Saturday at the Civic Center post office on 13th Street when someone removed the nest from the tree as a precaution, said Augustine Ruiz, a postal service spokesman.
At least five baby black-crowned night herons were inside the nest; they ranged from one to three weeks old.
"They are very careful in what they do. We hire people who are professional," Ruiz said. "It's protocol for tree trimmers to assess branches they cut and make sure there are no nests there."
But some who say they were at the scene say some herons were mangled in a wood chipper while others tumbled more than 25 feet to the ground, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Pictures from the scene showed a dead baby heron dangling from a branch with curled talons.
"It was awful," said Lisa Owens Viani, director of Raptors Are the Solution, who was among the first on the scene. "It's especially appalling because these birds are so vulnerable and such a valuable part of the ecosystem."
Andrew Hughan, spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said, "There's no direct evidence that any birds were killed, but that could change with the investigation."
Ruiz and Ernest Pulido, who owns the landscaping company, dispute those claims. Pulido described himself as animal lover, noting he grew up on a farm. Pulido said a woman at the scene confronted him about the nest, and he reassured her no harm would come to the birds.
"Nothing was thrown into a wood chipper. That's not true," Pulido said. "We weren't harming any animals."
The herons were picked up by WildCare in San Rafael and are being cared for by International Bird Rescue, which has a center in Fairfield, said spokesman Andrew Harmon. Some of the herons suffered scrapes, bruises and ruptured air sacs.
Harmon confirmed that Pulido had offered to pay the birds' rehabilitation costs.
"Our team is extremely well-versed with this species, and they are OK," Harmon said. "The birds won't be able to be renested and most likely will be raised at our center until they're old enough to be in a suitable habitat."
Although the five herons seem to have a good prognosis, the fish and wildlife service is trying to determine why the birds, protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, were removed.
Hughan said removing protected birds requires a permit.
"To remove the nest of an endangered species is a crime," Hughan said. "If it rises to a crime, we would forward those state charges to the Alameda County district attorney's office."