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This Lake Is For The Birds: Stories From The Nation’s First Wildlife Refuge

Frank B. Rudolph
A photo of Lake Merritt thought to be taken in the 1890s, which shows the marshy shoreline and undeveloped hillside. This image is from the Oakland Public Library's History Room.

Oakland’s Lake Merritt was the nation’s first wildlife refuge, before Yosemite, before Yellowstone.

There are so many fun stories that you can tell about Oakland’s Lake Merritt. There's the fact that Fairyland is said to have inspired Walt Disney; that Huey Newton lived in a penthouse on the south end of the lake; Sly and the Family Stone posed for an album cover on the "Lake Merritt Monster" playground by the bandstand. You could really tell the whole history of Oakland through the stories of this lake.

Some of my personal favorite stories though, come from Jim Covel, who grew up at Lake Merritt. 

“I can remember as a helper down here going in to clean those cages out in the morning. The owls were always a little skittish. You'd have to make sure you didn't get the owls too excited or they might actually come after you.” 

Jim helped take care of the animal enclosures in front of the nature center on the shores of the lake. There was a coyote, a talking raven, a golden eagle.

“One of the Turkey vultures, her name was ‘Minniehaha.’ She would actually hop down and land on the handle of the rake so you drop the rake and then she would go after your shoelaces and start untying your shoe.”

Credit Marissa Ortega-Welch / KALW
Jim Covel shows a page from the book his father, Paul Covel, Lake Merritt's first paid naturalist, wrote.

Jim’s dad, Paul Covel, was the acting naturalist at Lake Merritt’s Rotary Nature Center from the 40s to the 70s. In those days, when people found injured or unreleasable wild animals, they would bring them to Paul.

“We got a call one day from Disney Studios asking if we'd be interested in a sandhill crane,” a bird that stands about four feet tall. “I remember as a teenager, pretty much we would look each other eye to eye.” 

Jim’s dad was basically like Dr. Doolittle. Any animals that couldn't be kept at the nature center, he brought home with him. Their house was a menagerie. There were skunks living behind the refrigerator, raccoons in the laundry porch, and bats in the water heater closet. The bats made “nice house pets ‘cause you’d never see them,” Jim says. 

Jim’s dad Paul didn’t leave his work at work. He didn’t even see it as work. “It was a way of life for him.” 

Paul Covel is thought to be the first naturalist to be put on a city payroll anywhere in the country and he worked for the nation’s first wildlife refuge: Lake Merritt. 

So it’s a lake of many firsts. Also, it’s not a lake. It’s an estuary, where creeks coming out of the Oakland hills meet with the tide coming in from the San Francisco Bay. 

“Wherever there's freshwater and saltwater that mixed together is where our ancestors created homes,” says Corrina Gould, the tribal chair and traditional spokesperson for the confederated villages of Lisjan/Ohlone. Those marshy habitats made excellent places to live. Up to the late 1700s, there were two Ohlone village sites at Lake Merritt. “People would be on the lake in their canoes; there would have been fishing; they would have been playing music.”

But in the early 1800s, the Spanish government seized the land from Corrina’s ancestors and gave it to one of its Sargeants, Luis Peralta. In turn, some white Americans seized the land from the Peralta Family. Soon the marsh was dotted with the mansions of rich homeowners. One of those people was the Mayor of Oakland at the time, Samuel Merritt.

Dorothy Lazard, head librarian at the Oakland Public Library's History Center, calls him “Dr. Sam.”

“Probably just me calling him that, but Dr. Sam, he lived right up the street [from the Oakland Main Library], kind of near the McDonald's, which obviously wasn't there.” 

Credit Marissa Ortega-Welch / KALW
Librarian Dorothy Lazard in Oakland Public Library's History Center, which has a large archive of books and maps about Lake Merritt in the 1800s.

Dorothy explains that by that time, the marsh wasn’t the most beautiful place to live. The city dumped its raw sewage there and when the tide went out, it stank. So Merritt got this hair-brain idea. He bankrolled damming the estuary, to keep the tide from going out, and turning it into a desirable place to live. 

“People in Oakland called it Merrit's folly,” Dorothy says. “It's like, who's gonna move near here?”

But it worked!

By 1878, Dorothy says Oakland residents were already referring to it as Lake Merritt. “So didn't stay "a folly" for very long,” 

As for how it became a wildlife refuge, the story goes like this: Merritt got tired of the duck hunters in his backyard. A stray bullet went through his window; another one killed his neighbor’s cow. He got the city to pass a resolution banning duck hunting. The resolution went all the way up to the state government, making it the first public wildlife refuge in the country. On the one hand, you can see this as a triumph for the birds, the start of a tradition to set aside and protect habitat! On the other hand, you could see all of Merritt’s projects as really great real estate marketing. 

Dorothy tells me she’s come across old real estate ads in the Oakland history room, promoting Lake Merritt as a great place to live. “You know, move to the Lake, you have this Mediterranean climate, you have view of the Hills, you're close to the central business district!” 

Regardless of the goal, the outcome was that Lake Merritt became a place for the birds. Dorothy shows me an old picture from 1923 of the annual duck festival that took place at the time. People would dance around to welcome the ducks back from their migration. She laughs and shakes her head. “Very bizarre!” 

But hey, if you’re the kind of person who would attend a duck festival, this would have been like Lake Merritt's renaissance period for you. The city started a daily, public duck feeding program and built islands in the lake for bird habitat. In the '40s, Oakland became the first city to hire a naturalist and that job went to Paul Covel. The Rotary Club built the nature center and Paul oversaw all the programs there, including banding birds to study their migration.

As a kid, Jim’s job, being small and quick, was to run in and grab the ducks and bring them out to the people banding the birds. Banding helped scientists learn that ducks who spend the winter at the lake fly north to Alaska and Canada in the summer. Lake Merritt was one of the only plces on the west coast studying this at the time. 

“I think we had a snow goose that was banded here that flew over and was actually shot by a Hunter in Siberia.” 

Maybe you're not a bird lover, though. Maybe you're actually afraid of birds and that fear of birds comes from one movie in particular: Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Jim says that parts of that movie were actually filmed right at Lake Merritt. Hitchcock sent a film crew to the lake and animal keepers from the nature center stood on the shore and threw fish into the air to get the gulls to dive down. The footage was later superimposed into the film.

“Tippi Hedren is out there ducking and dodging,” Jim says, “And they were actually gulls from Lakeside park that were just trying to grab a fish.” 

While Jim and I take our walk at the lake, we notice one of the big bird cages he used to clean is empty and fenced off.

“They seem to be slowly closing down more and more parts of this park.” 

In more recent decades, the Rotary Nature Center has fallen on hard times. The cages where Mini-Ha-Ha the turkey vulture and the raven and coyote lived are gone. The enclosure where scientists used to band birds is still there, but it's now filled with resident Canada Geese and pigeons. Some of the changes here, Jim says, are a sign of the times. It’s no longer acceptable to feed wild animals or keep them in small cages. But some of the changes are due to a lack of resources. 

“When I walk around the Lake today, this part of the Lake and the programs that were connected to the waterfowl refuge are, they're showing their age,” says Jim. “I always feel a little sense of loss here.” 

The City of Oakland hasn’t dedicated funds for park maintenance since 2005. It’s been dipping into the city’s general fund to pay for services while costs have continued to rise.

Oaklander’s voted on Measure Q a couple of weeks ago but people I talked to said: even that wouldn’t be enough money to make up for all the deferred maintenance.

The Oakland Parks and Rec Foundation called the state of Oakland’s parks a “crisis.”

Decades after Paul Covel retired, community groups expressed concerns of mismanagement at the nature center, and neglect of the resident birds and reptiles that remained there. The city closed the center 2017, citing disrepair. Volunteers relocated the animals.

Terry Smith, President of Community for Lake Merritt, a friends group that worked with the city to re-open the Rotary Nature Center, gave me a tour. 

The center looks more sparse but cleaner than before. “They completely gutted the inside and painted everything,” Terry says. “And we went through all the old taxidermy. A lot of it was in kind of bad shape.” 

Credit Marissa Ortega-Welch / KALW
Terry Smith, President of Community for Lake Merritt, checks out the updated exhibit at the Rotary Nature Center, which re-opened last year.

When the city closed the nature center, Oakland's Parks and Rec hired a consultant to undergo a community engagement process and then made a strategic plan for the nature center. Terry’s group is now partnering with the city to implement those plans.

“The first phase was just getting everything cleaned up and sorted,” she says. Now they’re looking at building up programming and activities again. 

“It's step-by-step,” Terry says. “Things in the city are slow, but we're moving forward.”

Other community groups and individuals I talked to expressed concern that the city wasn't moving fast enough and wasn't prioritizing science education.

I asked Nicholas Williams, Director of Oakland’s Parks, Recreation and Youth Development, if his goal was to bring back the same kind of education and science programs that Lake Merritt had during Paul Covel’s era. He told me “absolutely” and that “part of our overall goal for parks and recreation is to reintroduce Oakland's kids to nature.” 

And it’s starting small. They’ve hired two part-time naturalists and programming there is starting to ramp up again. 

Jim Covel says that’s certainly what his dad, Paul Covel, the original naturalist, would have wanted to see. 

“My father was just a steadfast believer that people in the city needed access to nature as well. It was a key part of their life. And nature is all around in the city. If you. Learn to look at it that way, and that was a big part of his life's work.” 

To read more about Paul Covel and his work at Lake Merritt, read “People Are For The Birds: The Adventures and Observations of the West’s First Municipal Park naturalist at America’s First Waterfowl Refuge” 

There will be a variety of events throughout the year to celebrate the wildlife refuge’s anniversary. To find out when visit: www.lakemerritt.org

Marissa is going to be doing a few more stories on Lake Merritt. Have ideas for her? Email her at marissa@kalw.org