This Island Was Built Solely to Protect Wild Birds

A black-crowned night heron
A black-crowned night heron | © Doug Letterman / Flickr
Elizabeth Nicholas

Betty Smith may have said that a tree grows in Brooklyn, but in the middle of another urban enclave, an island archipelago designed specifically to protect birds grows in the middle of Oakland.

The island doesn’t look like much from a distance. Dead trees and dead shrubbery dominate the landscape. But look closer—and up in the air—and you’ll find that the islands play host to thousands of birds of varying species.

An Eared Greb Glance in Lake Merritt

The island—which is actually a five-island archipelago—is populated by birds who live there permanently, and by those making their way around the world on migratory journeys.

The group of islands might be near the boating area in the lake and the shore, but the public is not allowed within 50 yards of them. Those few park workers and qualified volunteers who are granted access to the bird paradise describe it in rhapsodic terms.

“It’s a visceral feeling,” Lake Merritt Institute director James Robinson has said. “I could compare it to my first time traveling overseas, getting off the plane and realizing it’s the same sky, but you look around and everything is totally different. It’s a sensory overload, an experience of learning of how to be in the moment.”

A black-crowned night heron

The islands were created over 100 years ago from leftover dirt from construction projects. They are situated in Lake Merritt, which is actually a lagoon. The water, which comes from the San Francisco Bay tidal estuary, is a mix of salt and freshwater, which makes it atypically biodiverse.

This biodiversity is half of the reason that the islands are so important to many species of migrating birds. The other reason is that Oakland’s location is approximately halfway down the Pacific Flyway, which is a migratory route that birds fly from Alaska to Patagonia.

The lake’s first iteration as protected land came in the 1870s. The mayor of Oakland was frustrated that his waterfront property near the lake, which attracted many ducks and other birds, had become a major hunting ground. He used his political clout to get his backyard designated by the state as a nature reserve—the country’s first.

The bird sanctuary islands

In 1915, subsequent Oakland mayor John Davie decided he wanted to give the birds that flocked to the lake a dedicated space of their own, where they could be free from the hectoring of the many locals and tourists who came to enjoy the nature preserve. He created a 20,000-square-foot (1,858-square-meter) island called “Duck Island”—or in his political opponent’s words, Davie’s Folly.

But Davie’s idea proved to be a good one. The local newspaper ran breathless coverage of dedications and new bird families being born on the island, and Oakland residents put on a radio play, which aired once a week throughout the 1920s, starring the first “native-son” ducks that were born on the island. Local society members used the local birds as inspiration for costumes parties.

And birds were quickly learning that the refuge was a safe place for them, where they would be free from animal and predators. “In the 1940s and ’50s, they were counting 4,000 [birds] a day that they didn’t get the day before,” Golden Gate Audubon Society tour guide Hilary Powers has said—“Tens of thousands over the course of the season.”

A bufflehead, a type of sea duck, on Lake Merritt

When former zookeeper and ornithologist Paul Covel moved to Oakland to join the Parks Department, he made the refuge his focus. He expanded it to include four more islands (built from landscaping dirt) and planted blackberry bushes, star acacias, and bottlebrush throughout to attract and support more avian diversity. Covel’s bid worked, and 150 different species came in one season alone some years.

In 1975, a raccoon infestation forced a population of egrets to relocate, and they chose the islands as their new home. Black-crowned night herons soon joined them, which reinvigorated interest in the islands. Birders from around the country came to know the archipelago as a destination, and they would come to stake out birds they could never get so close to at home.

The egrets and herons didn’t last—the saline content of the lake was hurt in the early 2000s, which caused many of the trees to die, causing these two species to move on. But seabirds that thrive in direct sunlight soon moved in, with the bare tree branches being the ideal environment for the birds.

The islands are a rare example of a dense urban enclave prioritizing conservation and nature over expansion and development, which in Oakland, at least, is as appreciated by the birds as it is by nature-loving locals.

culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider


women sitting on iceberg


2 years.


It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.


I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.