A Burrowing Owl death in Berkeley

By Ilana DeBare

The Burrowing Owls of Cesar Chavez Park are beloved by Berkeley residents and park visitors. More than that, they’re listed as a Species of Special Concern in California due to their dwindling habitat and numbers.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, Berkeley’s owl lovers were jolted by some tragic news — the one Burrowing Owl spotted in the park this year was found dead on a park bench.

A passerby managed to photograph the owl and shared the photo with Golden Gate Bird Alliance’s dedicated group of volunteer Burrowing Owl docents. But by the time GGBA learned of the death, the body was gone and so no one was able to conduct a necropsy to determine its cause of death.

“We are all very saddened by the tragic loss of our single Burrowing Owl in CCP this winter season,”  docent coordinator Della Dash wrote in an email to the group, which has been monitoring and educating people about the owls since 2009. “We are trying to piece together what happened. But without the remains it will be impossible to know what really happened, unless someone from the public comes forward to report what occurred.”

The dead Burrowing Owl on a park bench
The dead Burrowing Owl on a park bench

One possibility is that the owl may have been attacked by an off-leash dog, and left on the bench by its owner or by another park visitor. Along with helping people spot the owls through a scope, the docents spend a lot of their time trying to educate dog owners to keep their pets leashed when outside the park’s designated off-leash area.

Other possibilities are that the owl was the victim of a larger raptor, a feral cat, or some other predator. But the upshot is, without a body to analyze, we will not be able to pinpoint a certain cause of death.

The loss of a single owl is more significant than it might seem. Cesar Chavez Park has long harbored a small population of Burrowing Owls that spend the winter in ground squirrel burrows and then fly elsewhere to breed. Several years ago, one Cesar Chavez owl was documented by leg bands nesting as far away as Idaho, where it fledged three clutches of young.

The Burrowing Owl that was found dead over Thanksgiving weekend / Photo by Miya Lucas
The Burrowing Owl that was found dead over Thanksgiving weekend / Photo by Miya Lucas
The Burrowing Owl that was found dead over Thanksgiving weekend / Photo by Doug Donaldson
The Burrowing Owl that was found dead over Thanksgiving weekend / Photo by Doug Donaldson

But the park’s wintering owl population has dwindled, possibly due to California’s drought. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of resident Burrowing Owls ranged between three and six each winter. From 2014 through 2016, only two owls were found in the park. So far this winter, there was only that single owl — who now is gone.

“One of the challenges of Burrowing Owl conservation is that you’re not looking at massive flocks of birds in a single place like geese,” said Dash. “Protection has to be done on a much more individual basis. There’s ongoing infringement into their habitat (by development) and so we have the loss of one owl here and one owl there. That’s why protecting every single bird is important.”

There is one piece of bright Burrowing Owl news from the East Bay shoreline — the GGBA docents found an owl this winter on the Albany Plateau. This is an area that was designated and fenced off as Burrowing Owl habitat, in mitigation for loss of owl habitat with construction of the Tom Bates sports fields along the shoreline.

The City of Albany and East Bay Regional Park District have been very supportive of the owl habitat area. But  until now, no owls had opted to use the area.

“It’s amazing to have an owl there for the first time, since people had given up on their ever going there,” Dash said.

Burrowing Owl on the Albany Plateau (it helps to have a scope!) / Photo by Doug Donaldson
Burrowing Owl on the Albany Plateau (it helps to have a scope!) / Photo by Doug Donaldson

In the wake of the Cesar Chavez owl death, Dash placed signs asking parkers to call the GGBA office if they had information on what happened. (So far, no calls.)  GGBA’s docents will continue to monitor the park in case other owls arrive, and will monitor and help people spot the Albany Plateau owl.

“We must not despair, as there is still much work to do for the owl that remains in the Albany Plateau enclosure, as well as other owls that may be roosting in CCP, the Meadow, and/or at the Tom Bates Sports Center, as well as along the Bay Trail,” Dash wrote in her email to the docents.”Your diligence is needed even more today – to scout the surrounding areas and count any additional owls!”

Meanwhile, we ask Cesar Chavez park visitors to please keep dogs on leash when outside of the designated off-leash area. Don’t allow your dogs to approach owls or other wildlife in the park. Don’t go into the art installation that serves as an informal fence around the area that the owls usually inhabit.

If you witness someone harming wildlife or polluting wildlife habitat, please call the California Department of Fish & Wildlife hotline at 1-888-DFG-CALTIP. If you see a distressed bird or animal, please call 1-866-WILD-911.

We also hope the City of Berkeley will provide better demarcation of the off-leash area in Cesar Chavez Park, and will do more to enforce the city’s existing leash laws. The City has been extremely cooperative and supportive of the owl population. Working together, we hope to ensure that Cesar Chavez will be a safe and welcoming place for future Burrowing Owls, which bring such delight to so many park visitors.

Update: As of late December 2016, a second Burrowing Owl has been spotted at Cesar Chavez Park! 🙂 If you visit the park, look for our docents with their spotting scope. They can help you spot the owl if it is visible.