Local and state authorities are investigating a company that Newport Beach residents say tore down a tree full of protected birds.
Neighbors in Balboa Peninsula Point said they stood on the sidewalk along East Balboa Boulevard in disbelief last week as workers knocked down a large tree that was home to two types of herons.
Authorities declined to release the name of the company involved, citing an "active criminal investigation."
Residents said the distressed birds circled above the tree, which sat on the site of a demolished house in the 1500 block of East Balboa Boulevard, as their nests and chicks fell to the ground. The site had been undergoing construction for several weeks, neighbors said. All work has been halted.
Officials said the tree was on private property and could be torn down without a permit. But federal law prohibits anyone from disturbing or removing active birds' nests from trees.
Newport Beach animal control and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife are investigating the crew for a possible misdemeanor violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which protects birds throughout the U.S., animal control Officer Nick Ott said.
Animal control officials took 10 chicks to the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach. Two of the birds were dead on arrival, Ott said.
The tree was largely overgrown and known to provide an annual nesting spot for snowy egrets — a small white heron — and black-crowned night herons, neighbors said.
One resident called Newport Beach police when workers continued to cut down the tree despite neighbors' protests, Nicole Snell Deermount said.
"They kept tearing down the tree, even though all these birds were freaking out all over the place," Deermount said. "Birds were flying everywhere."
Deermount said her husband, Adam, was walking the family dog the next morning when he noticed a chick struggling in the branches piled on the ground. He called animal control, which took the bird to the rescue center.
"We suspect there were a lot more birds up there," Ott said.
After the investigation is complete, the agencies will submit their findings to the Orange County district attorney's office, Ott said. Prosecutors will decide whether to file charges.
If convicted, those involved could face six months to a year in jail and be ordered to pay fines. The case also could be prosecuted at the federal level, officials said.