When a large ficus tree split in downtown Oakland, California, in front of a post office, part of it toppled, sending dozens of baby birds to the ground. The tree was home to a large breeding colony of herons and egrets.

A concerned passer-by called the International Bird Rescue's wildlife center in San Francisco Bay and a team was sent to the scene. They worked for two and a half days with volunteers from Golden Gate Audubon, post office staff, law enforcement, tree removal employees and arborists to collect the surviving birds and eggs before the rest of the tree was taken down.

It was a chaotic scene as rescuers were cutting branches, gathering up nests and corralling birds. Meanwhile, petrified older birds were hopping between branches and distressed parents were flying nervously around the tree, trying to find their offspring, J.D. Bergeron, executive director of the International Bird Rescue, tells MNN.

On the first day, when half of the tree fell, that was a bit of a grim day, Bergeron says. There were a lot of dead birds and the ones on the ground had trauma.

"We were frantically looking through foliage. There's very thick foliage in a full-grown ficus so it cushioned their fall. We were literally lifting up branches and finding little tiny nestlings that were amazingly looking unscathed."

On the second day, the tree experts decided it wasn't safe for the rest of the tree to stay up. So because the bird rescuers weren't allowed to go up in the cherry picker, they had to give instructions to the tree trimmers on how to get the eggs and nestlings out of the nests.

International Bird Rescue Executive Director JD Bergeron points out herons in the tree above International Bird Rescue Executive Director JD Bergeron points out herons in the tree above. (Photo: Cheryl Reynolds/International Bird Rescue)

Meanwhile, there were branchers — these are the birds that were old enough to walk away from the nest, but not fly — that were scampering around. Meanwhile, traumatized parent birds were swooping in, trying to feed their babies.

"It was remarkable," Bergeron says. "We tend to think of herons and egrets as not always the best parents. They build kind of rickety nests. But there were a number of really dedicated parents feeding the babies that were still on that tree. They were more intensely showing up. It really was amazing. They were clustering as closely as they could to protect their babies."

Taking care of the babies

Young snowy egrets are ready for transfer to International Bird Rescue - SF Bay-Delta Wildlife Center. Young snowy egrets are ready for transfer to International Bird Rescue's San Francisco Bay-Delta Wildlife Center. (Photo: Cheryl Reynolds, International Bird Rescue/Facebook)

While the on-site team saved birds, other volunteers and clinic staff members worked to prepare for incoming patients and take care of them as they arrived.

By the time the rescue had ended, they had 50 snowy egrets, 22 black-crowned night herons and 17 eggs in need of intensive care and round-the-clock support. Some of the birds were just days old and had to be kept in incubators, according to the rescue.

"The birds that we were able to pluck directly from the tree are obviously better off," Bergeron says. "They didn't fall and didn't hit the ground, so they skipped the trauma of being captured or hurt."

With so many little feathered charges to care for, the rescue sent out a plea for help. They needed more volunteers and funds to help care for the birds. The group plans to care for the birds until they can be released into the wild. Depending on its age, each bird will be in the rescue's care from two to six weeks before release.

So far, Bergeron says, two have already been released, but because of the trauma, some did not make it.

In just two weeks since the rescue, the group raised nearly $40,000 in donations. The goal is $50,000 so they can care for these birds and be prepared for the next emergency.

"People rise up for these acute moments," Bergeron says. "We deal with 600 to 700 babies every year but because they come in a few at a time, we have a hard time fundraising."

About the rescue

Young black-crowned night herons are now being cared for. These young black-crowned night herons are now being cared for. (Photo: Cheryl Reynolds/International Bird Rescue)

With a slogan, "Every bird matters," International Bird Rescue was founded in 1971 after two Standard Oil tankers collided near San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, resulting in a spill that affected 50 miles of coastline and covered 7,000 birds in oil. Volunteers collected nearly 4,300 of them and brought them to makeshift rehabilitation centers.

"There were dying birds everywhere and no one knew what to do. It was as horrible as you can imagine," Jay Holcomb, International Bird Rescue's executive director at the time, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2012. "It was then that we realized there needs to be an organized attempt for their care."

Alice Berkner, a retired nurse and animal lover who helped with bird rehabilitation following the oil tanker accident, founded the rescue — originally called International Bird Rescue Research Center — in April 1971. Since then, the group has led bird rescues after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, the 2000 Treasure Spill near Cape Town and after the 2010 explosion of Deepwater Horizon. The team has led bird rescue efforts in more than 200 oil spills in more than a dozen countries.

In addition to responding to oil spills worldwide, the rescue also operates two, year-round aquatic bird rescue centers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, which care for more than 4,000 birds every year. The recent heron and egret babies went to the San Francisco Bay location which already had more than 200 waterbirds already in temporary residence at the busy wildlife hospital.

"We're constantly doing waterbird rehab, but having this many babies all at once is something else," Bergeron says.

Calling attention to the need this time around is great, he says, but he hopes the story does something more.

"Part of what we are trying to do is really inspire people to step up and act. People paying attention to where animals are living in their own community is what we’re trying to get changed in the world. We want every person to feel they can do something every single day."

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.

Rescuers save nearly 100 baby birds after Oakland tree collapses
Rescue workers swooped in and saved nearly 100 baby birds when tree in Oakland split and started to topple.