Removal of tree with protected birds’ nests draws investigation

A bird sits among the remains of a tree in Newport Beach that officials believe was torn down in violation of bird protection laws.
(Shelley Ervin)

Local and state authorities are investigating a contractor that residents say tore down a tree full of legally protected birds Thursday afternoon in a Newport Beach neighborhood.

Neighbors in Balboa Peninsula Point said they stood on the sidewalk along East Balboa Boulevard in disbelief as workers knocked down a large tree that was home to two types of herons.

Authorities declined to release the name of the company, 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, 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 therefore could be torn down without a permit. However, federal law prohibits anyone from disturbing or removing active birds’ nests from trees.

Newport Beach animal-control officials 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 United States, said animal-control officer Nick Ott.

Animal-control officials took 10 chicks to the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach on Thursday afternoon. Two of the chicks 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 around 3:30 p.m. Thursday when workers continued to demolish the tree despite neighbors’ protests, resident 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 Friday 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 charges are filed, those involved could face six months to a year in jail and be ordered to pay fines if convicted. The case also could be prosecuted at the federal level, officials said.