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Hard to Swallow : Feathers Ruffled When the Capistrano Birds Nested Under Freeway Bridges

September 25, 1988|JACK SMITH

I HAVE LATELY learned of a threat to life and limb that has been ignored by the press and the engineering community and has been covered up for 20 years by the bureaucracy.

The appalling neglect of public responsibility that has allowed this hazard to go unaddressed for so long has been brought to my attention by Julian Donahue, Natural History Museum lepidopterist.

On June 11, 1968, Donahue discloses, his father-in-law, G. C. Smith--then an engineer (now retired) in the bridge department, Division of Highways, California Department of Public Works--wrote a memo to his superior, W. F. Pond, warning that the bridges he was building over the freeways in San Diego County were in danger of collapsing.

The cause of this imminent peril, he said, was the nesting of cliff swallows ( Petrochelidon pyrrhonota ) beneath the spans. (Donahue notes that this is the same bird that allegedly returns each March 19 to San Juan Capistrano, a phenomenon that ornithologists dismiss as a myth.)

Estimating that one nest requires 10.60 ounces of dry river mud, .01 ounce of reinforcing straw and grass, .05 ounce of nesting straw and grass, 2.03 ounces of cement and 4.20 ounces of eggs (six to a nest) and adding 1.5 ounces for a nesting swallow, Smith calculated that the total would be 18.39 ounces. Assuming a total of 1.79 nests per foot on each side of a 200-foot span, he said, the total would be about 822 pounds, roughly 1,000.

Smith concluded that this weight constituted a danger to motorists passing beneath the bridges.

According to custom in multilayered bureaucracies, Pond simply sent Smith's letter to his superior, with one revision, to wit: "Most ornithologists believe that the cliff swallow lays an average of five eggs rather than the six used in Mr. Smith's calculations. The difference, however, is negligible, and the error will be on the safe side . . . . Please let me know if you need any more information on this subject."

It must be said to the credit of Pond's superior, W. J. Jurkovich, that he did not ignore Smith's warning, though his treatment of it might seem, by today's more consumer-conscious standards, a bit cavalier.

In his answer to Pond, Jurkovich conceded that Smith had exposed a "nasty" situation that he wished Smith had never brought up. "Maintenance feels we should prepare a policy statement that no nesting shall be permitted on any bridge structure," he reported, reflecting typical bureaucratic arrogance.

"Since this is a housing problem," he said, "(it has been) referred to Housing and Urban Development. HUD's position is that any effort by the Division to remove the housing facilities of this minority group is ex post facto discrimination. There is a rumor from a reliable source that a 'March for the Birds' is being planned.

"My experience is that 'bird watchers' are too emotional. I'm sure Mr. Smith's concern is not the structural adequacy of the bridge, but the safety of the birds if the bridge collapsed. In reference to your last paragraph, I must say you have supplied more information on this subject than we could possibly use."

In a postscript, Jurkovich noted that Smith had omitted the weight of bird guano from his calculations.

Once again addressing his immediate superior, according to bureaucratic protocol, Smith expressed alarm that maintenance would actually try to remove the nests.

"I am informed by an unimpeachable source," he wrote, "actually a pair of educated parakeets, ex-employees of the CIA and the real originators of a recent plan to put birds to work for the Army as reconnaissance units. They are now leading a semi-retired life in a nearby lemon grove. They state that when the swallows fly north to make their courtesy appearance at San Juan Capistrano, the nests are occupied by a variety of minority groups during the summer months."

Among these transient interlopers, he said, were red-wing and yellow-wing blackbirds, yellow canaries, bluebirds, blue jays, towhees and a "rather rare variety of Mexican finch."

Smith said he thought that the Division of Highways might find itself in "an exceedingly awkward position" if it tried to destroy the nests. He urged consideration of the problem "at the highest levels."

And there it has lain for 20 years.

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