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Hawk Habitat Destroyed

By David Gelles, Special to the Planet
Tuesday September 12, 2006

A black acacia tree in Live Oak Park, nearly 100 years old and for years home to a family of Cooper’s hawks, was removed Saturday as neighbors looked on. 

“Park users liked to come watch the hawks,” said William Clark, who has lived across the street from the tree for 20 years, and watched as it came down. “It was a real attraction.” 

The 80-foot-tall tree shaded the northwest corner of the park, its branches extending over Shattuck Avenue. The tree had been dead for more than a year, and scheduled for removal since the spring. 

“We were concerned about it structurally,” said Jerry Koch, senior forestry supervisor for the City of Berkeley, who estimated the tree’s age. “It had a lot of internal decay.”  

But city officials postponed removing it to allow the Cooper’s hawks time to nest in the tree one last time. When the fledglings left in August, the city scheduled Saturday’s work. 

Allen Fish, director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, had monitored the hawks for three seasons, but said residents reported seeing the birds there for as many as ten years. Clark said the birds had nested there for at least seven years.  

“Neighbors often know more than biologists,” said Fish. 

Cooper’s hawks, which are common in the area and native only to North America, typically do not return to the same tree to nest. “They’ll often build a nest in the same territory, but not in the same tree,” said Fish. “It’s a mystery why they kept coming back to this tree.” 

But according to Fish, the acacia was an ideal habitat. “If I were gardening for Cooper’s hawks in Berkeley,” he said, “I would create a place that looks a lot like Live Oak Park.”  

Berkeley has the highest density of Cooper’s hawks ever recorded, said Fish. Cooper’s hawks also nest in oaks, elms, sequoias and redwoods, all of which are found nearby. 

On Saturday, a crew of three from West Coast Arborists spent most of the day removing the tree. From the basket of a boom-truck, one worker sawed away the limbs and secured them in the grip of a 25-ton crane, which lowered them to the street. There, a chipper truck ground the tree down to sawdust. 

During the removal, part of one lane of traffic was blocked on Shattuck Avenue between Eunice and Berryman. Zach Campbell, the crane operator, said the job proceeded without incident. 

Workers recovered the hawks’ nest, a tangle of small twigs and grasses. It will go to the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory for use in an educational display. 

“When we talk about urban trees, it’s a continual process,” said Koch. “We remove dead trees all the time, and plant at least as many every year.” 

But the city doesn’t plant acacias, which are among the most problematic urban trees, said Koch. Their shallow root structure, he said, makes them prone to collapse.  

A few years ago, Clark said he watched as another acacia in the park fell into Shattuck Avenue, crushing two cars. “Since this one’s dead,” he said, “It’s a good thing they’re taking it out.”  

Live Oak Park covers five and a half acres of north Berkeley between Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street. Cordonices Creek runs through the park, and large stands of evergreens surround a grassy field. The tallest tree in the park, according to Koch, is a multi-trunk cypress nearby the removed acacia. 

Fish said he expects the hawks to return to the area between January and March. “I believe we’ll see next year’s Cooper’s hawks somewhere near Codornices Creek,” he said. 

Clark also expressed hope that the hawks will return. “They could nest in the deodara cedar behind my house,” he said.