Enjoying Oakland’s Wildlife

For a city of 400,000 people, Oakland has surprisingly abundant wildlife living within its borders. Did you know that we have wild bobcats, coyotes, black-tailed mule deer, and gray and red foxes living in our midst, along with the more commonly seen raccoons, opossums, skunks, and squirrels? While many of these mammals remain in the wooded areas of the Oakland Hills, you may occasionally come across one’s path. If you do encounter a wild animal, be sure to give it a wide berth and don’t do anything to frighten it (especially if you come upon a skunk – if you don’t believe me, ask my dog, Dingo…).

Black Tailed Mule Deer.


Oakland is also home to numerous species of birds, reptiles, and insects. Since we’re situated on the Pacific Flyway, one of the major bird migration routes in North America, we also get to glimpse migratory birds that don’t reside here, passing through on their way north in the spring or south in the fall.

And let’s not forget the marine life that finds its way into San Francisco Bay. This spring, a bat ray made the swim from the Bay into Lake Merritt. And, for the first time in decades, there have been sightings of a river otter that has made its way up the Oakland Estuary to Lake Merritt. These are exciting confirmations that the reclamation project that restored the tidal marsh and remade the channel connecting the estuary to Lake Merritt is succeeding in improving the local ecosystem.

Clearly, Oakland is more than ethnically and culturally diverse. Its differing geography, ranging from coastline to urban floodplain to rural, wooded hills, provides us with a surprisingly varied wildlife experience.

While hiking trails in the Oakland Hills may be a good place to commune with wildlife (if you haven’t heard ravens ‘talking,’ the Oakland Hills is a good place to hear those weird, intelligent sounds), the less intrepid can enjoy a variety of ducks, geese, cormorants, pelicans, egrets, herons, and other feathered friends at the Lake Merritt Nature Reserve. Established in 1870 by former Oakland Mayor, Dr. Samuel Merritt, the Lake Merritt Nature Reserve is the oldest wildlife reserve in the United States.

The nearby Rotary Nature Center on Lake Merritt (600 Bellevue Ave) provides a variety of wildlife exhibits. When the Center is open, naturalists are on hand to answer visitors’ questions. Incidently, the Golden Gate Audubon Society offers free bird walks at Lake Merritt on the fourth Wednesday of each month. They meet at the Rotary Nature Center’s geodesic dome cage at 9:30am.

During a recent visit to the reserve, I came across a one-legged black-crowned night heron standing on a chain link fence, looking rather flamingo-like as it stood facing the sun. Later that same week, I met the heron again, this time at the KFC on Lake Park Ave! This heron may be disabled, but it manages to navigate the city quite well.

Oakland’s one-legged Black-Crowned Night Heron.

One-legged heron

Oakland also sports its own zoo. The Oakland Zoo, in the hills of Knowland Park (9777 Golf Links Road) is home to more than 660 native and exotic animals. It offers a variety of family and educational activities, focusing on wildlife and conservation.

The best times to view wildlife in its natural environment is early in the morning or late in the day. That’s when animals are most active and visible. Many animals are nocturnal, so looking at dawn and dusk is the best time to spot them before they bed down for the day.

If your pleasure is backyard birds, feeders and birdhouses can help draw the birds into your yard. This is an enjoyable way to watch and learn about the local birds from the comfort of your home. The best time to fill the feeders is in the winter when the birds’ natural food supplies are less plentiful. The birds nest and raise chicks throughout the spring and early summer.

Male Western Bluebird feeding one of six babies.

Bluebird and baby

While we’re fortunate to have abundant wildlife in our proximity, we must be vigilant about protecting it. For one thing, we should respect the animals’ habitats and refrain from further encroachment upon unpopulated woodland areas.

Closer to home, we should keep the lids firmly on our trashcans, so raccoons and other animals don’t get into our rubbish and eat things that aren’t healthy for them. We should also cut up any plastic six-pack rings or other discarded items that could entangle an unsuspecting animal or bird.

Last week, I was driving across the Bay Bridge when I noticed a cormorant pacing my car, about thirty yards away. I could clearly see that the bird had a plastic six-pack ring wrapped around its long neck. It was a heartbreaking image because I couldn’t help the distressed bird. While the bird had no trouble flying, I don’t know if the same was true for its ability to breathe, fish or swallow food. This unfortunate incident could have been prevented with just a little forethought, care, and effort on the part of whomever improperly disposed of the plastic ring.

By respecting the wildlife around us and by taking a few simple steps to ensure its safety (not to mention our own), we will be able to continue to enjoy the beautiful creatures with whom we share Oakland.

Keeping Oakland Beautiful is everybody’s business.

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