Bird justice: Observer’s vigilance protects downtown L.A. ravens

To work in the file room of the downtown criminal courts building is to be a librarian of evils. Its shelves hold the official records of rapes, murders, robberies and thousands of other offenses prosecuted in the courthouse and the clerks there know the ugliness of society by name and case number.

It is perhaps not surprising then that on his lunch hour, an employee named Marcos Saldana was drawn to a scene of natural beauty. It was a ravens’ nest on the ledge of a building across Temple Street and Saldana watched each spring as the same pair of birds rebuilt the nest, hatched their chicks and taught them to fly.

“Birds are beautiful,” Saldana said, standing at his usual vantage point, a window in the L.A. courthouse’s 13th floor snack bar. “They can fly away and go wherever they want, whereas we are stuck to the ground.”

This April, Saldana’s fifth watching the ravens, the view changed in a way that made him fear the birds and their chicks were about to join a group with which he was well acquainted: victims of violence.

Saldana raised an the alarm in keeping with his soft-spoken, unassuming manner. He whispered his worries to a file room patron, a reporter, and offered photos — with an apology for their quality — of purplish black parents dropping food into the gaping mouths of a blurry brood.

In doing so, Saldana appears to have accomplished on his noontime repast what two government-paid biologists did not. He guaranteed the safety of the birds and might even have prevented a federal crime.

The nest in question is on a window sill of the vacant Hall of Justice, the historic former jail and courthouse. Shuttered after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the Beaux Arts pile is undergoing a $231-million renovation into offices for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and district attorney. When the project received funding last summer, Saldana wondered vaguely how it would affect the ravens, but his concerns grew this spring when workers built a protective canopy over the sidewalk beneath the nest and there were courthouse rumors about a giant power wash planned for the granite exterior.

“I wanted the babies to have time to get out,” Saldana said.

Ravens don’t normally get that kind of human attention. They are the geraniums of the birder world, their prevalence a bore to serious connoisseurs. They thrive throughout the country, often on a diet of other birds and garbage, and even the name of their species — common raven — carries an implicit yawn. But as Saldana, who spends weekends watching rarer birds, was quick to note, ravens can be captivating. They fly in an elegant progression of swoops and dives. They usually mate for life and share child-rearing duties. And they are intelligent. The Audubon Society’s field guide puts their reasoning ability at “comparable to that of a dog.”

Given their smarts, it was hard not so see some ironic wink in their choice of home. For centuries, ravens have been a near universal symbol of death, and Saldana’s birds were roosting on a building whose cells housed Sirhan Sirhan, Charles Manson and Richard Ramirez and whose basement coroner’s office was the site of the autopsies of Marilyn Monroe and Robert F. Kennedy.

While their presence riveted Saldana, no one at the construction site seemed to take notice, an issue because the ravens are protected by federal law. A 94-year-old statute, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, makes harming native birds or their nests a crime punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of $15,000.

“It seems kind of ridiculous when it’s a common species, but when birds have an active nest, it’s against the law to destroy it,” said Kimball Garrett, the ornithology collections manager at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum.

Told of the Hall of Justice’s raven residents, a manager at the county Department of Public Works expressed shock.

“We just had a biologist out there, and they didn’t find anything,” said assistant deputy director Jim Kearns.

To ensure compliance with the law, the county has a three-year, $40,000 contract with an engineering firm whose biologists are to survey the site every 10 days during nesting season.

“No active bird nests or nesting birds were observed on site,” a supervisor from Burns & McDonnell Engineering wrote in a report summarizing the results of four site visits since late February by a pair of biologists.

During an April 18 visit, he wrote, the biologists saw a single raven “circling and perching” but noted that it had no mate and was not nesting.

“It would be hard for a biologist to miss that,” said veteran bird watcher Ron Cyger, the former president of the Pasadena Audubon Society. “A raven nest is pretty large. You couldn’t miss it really.”

After The Times’ query, a biologist, a county project manager and the contractor went to the site and located the nest. The biologist initially identified the birds as American crows, a close cousin of the raven also protected by federal law. But informed by a reporter that Garrett, one of the country’s most eminent bird experts, had said the birds were ravens, a county spokesman said the biologist would revisit the identification. A few days later, he said the biologist had concluded the birds were indeed ravens.

No work on the exterior of the building is planned for several months, but the project manager said in a report related through a county spokesman that the area around the nest will be cordoned off “to assure no disturbance for the next four weeks or until we can confirm the hatchlings have fledged.”

After the chicks are gone, the nest will be removed “to alleviate future use,” according to the report.

Saldana is betting the birds come back anyhow.

“I would like to think I’ve been able to keep them safe,” he said.