OKC man denies wrongdoing in bird-nest case

The man who reported downed bird nests to city officials in early June denies any responsibility for the deaths of 187 federally protected nestlings at Lake Hefner.

Gregory Owen, of Oklahoma City, said he notified marina officials June 8 about the "mess" of downed nests near the marina's slip area, east of where Owen said he docked his boat.


In an e-mail exchange between Department of Utilities Director Marsha W. Slaughter and Trust Specialist Marla K. Adams regarding the suspect "that killed all the birds," Adams wrote, "His name is Gregory Owen." Documentation was obtained through an open-records request.

Owen, who hasn't been arrested or charged in the bird deaths, denied any involvement in a telephone interview last week.

"I called to report the fact that there was a big mess down at the end of the marina," Owen said. "And they misconstrued that I killed any baby birds.

"I didn't have a problem with the birds. They are not affecting me. They were just affecting the slip area " that's why I called to report it."

Oklahoma City Police Department officers patrolling the boat stalls on June 8 discovered about 30 downed nests and 185 dead baby birds near a concrete walkway at the end of the Gate 4 pier of the city-owned marina, according to a police report.

Two birds were alive when officers arrived. One died a short time later, officers reported. The other was taken to the WildCare Foundation in Noble where it later died.

The harbor master told officers a man who rents a boat stall had admitted to knocking down the nests with a pole because he was angry that the birds left messes on his boat, according to the report.

Police did not arrest or identify the man and his name was redacted on the police report. Master Sgt. Gary Knight of the Oklahoma City Police Department said the case was turned over to U.S. Fish and Wildlife services, which has jurisdiction over the federally protected birds.

Wildlife Service Special Agent Matt Bryant declined to identify the man suspected of knocking down the nests, but said anyone charged and found guilty of killing cliff swallows " which are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 " face a $500 fine for each bird killed.

In Oklahoma City, Slaughter sent Owen a certified letter on June 11, revoking his stall rental permit, giving him 10 days to remove his boat. The letter doesn't provide a reason for the revocation, noting that the stall rental contract allows the city to revoke stall permits at its discretion.

Owen confirmed the permit revocation.

Cliff swallows are small songbirds common throughout the state, said Timothy O'Connell, an ornithologist and assistant professor at Oklahoma State University's Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management. Cliff swallows are similar to barn swallows and are often referred to as "mud" swallows because of the unique, fully enclosed nests the birds fashion from mud and grass.

O'Connell described a period from late April to early June during which cliff swallows are busy laying eggs and protecting nestlings. About 23 days after hatching, the baby birds learn to fly, but still return to the nest for several weeks, he said.

"Cliff swallows are loaded with panache and among the most well-known birds in the state, even if most people don't realize it," O'Connell said. "We see them all the time in huge numbers under bridges and overpasses."

Unlike the more solitary barn swallows, O'Connell said the "social, gregarious and active" cliff swallows typically nest in large colonies. Collectively, these swallow colonies are considered "friends of farmers" and have a "voracious" appetite for flying insects, including ones that pester humans, he said.

Swallows and other small songbirds were once prized by early 20th century milliners who sought feathers and even whole birds as adornments for women's hats, O'Connell said, adding that The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was established, in part, to curb this practice.

Jane Cunningham is president of the Audubon Society of Central Oklahoma, a group that has led several wildlife conservation projects at Lake Hefner. Cunningham said there are easy, non-harmful ways to discourage cliff swallows from nesting in areas that might be a nuisance to humans, and several local companies and groups are capable of removing nests without harming birds.

Cunningham said many birds like cliff swallows have been forced to adapt new nesting habits, which often time puts them closer to people and danger.

"They just don't have as many nesting areas as they once did," she said. "It's a human thing. We've built shopping malls and parking lots and they have to adapt."

But cliff swallows nesting closer to people does bring one benefit, Cunningham said.

"We get to enjoy them," she said. "They are really great birds, very useful to humans and so full of personality. "¦ They are just beautiful." "Joe Wertz