Rapid response for Berkeley Burrowing Owls January 10, 2013

Posted by Ilana DeBare in Birding, Conservation, Golden Gate Audubon

By Ilana DeBare

Q: What’s more exciting than a new Burrowing Owl roosting site in Berkeley?
A: When city officials, park district officials and Audubon activists pull off a super-speedy response to protect the owls!


Golden Gate Audubon’s volunteer docents were thrilled to find Burrowing Owls at a new site in early January — the rip-rap along the Bay Trail in Berkeley where it passes between city-run soccer fields and the shoreline.

Our docents were accustomed to Burrowing Owls along parts of the Berkeley waterfront. Since 2009, they’ve been helping protect and inform the public about the small owl colony that winters in Cesar Chavez Park at the Berkeley Marina.

But these owls were in a slightly different area. Burrowing Owls had historically roosted along the open Berkeley shoreline. Then construction of the Tom Bates Regional Sports Complex in 2008 displaced them. In an attempt at mitigation, government officials set aside some open space for owl habitat in McLaughlin Eastshore State Park at the Albany Plateau. But birds don’t pay attention to Environmental Impact Reports, and the owls never showed up at their designated new home.

Now, suddenly, here was an owl back at the old site – but surrounded by busy night-lit soccer fields, a heavily-trafficked parking lot, and a path filled with people and their unleashed dogs!

Dog walkers are common alongside the owl site / Photo by Ilana DeBare

When docent Mary Malec reported sighting an owl near the soccer fields, docent coordinator Della Dash sprang into action. She contacted the East Bay Regional Park District, which manages the land as part of McLaughlin Eastshore State Park, and the city of Berkeley, which leases it to operate the sports complex.

“I was pushing for a fence as fast as possible,” Dash said.

And officials responded. Berkeley Parks Superintendent Sue Ferrera ran over to the Berkeley waterfront to look for the owl on Jan. 2nd. She didn’t see it. She went back on Jan. 3rd and found it. The very next morning, Ferrera had a team of park maintenance people in the field, erecting an orange warning fence to keep people and pets away from the bird. Ferrera was there too, making sure that installation of the fence didn’t disturb the owl.

“It scooted over a bit, but Della had said that would be okay: It would scoot over and then probably come back,” said Ferrera. “Then I checked on it an hour or two later, and it was back on its perch.”

Burrowing Owl behind new protective fencing / Photo by Ilana DeBare

So now the fence is up and the owl is… if not safe, at least a little safer. (The safest thing would be if people would leash their dogs in the area near the owl.)

Golden Gate Audubon docents are expanding their work to include the soccer rip-rap as well as Cesar Chavez Park — monitoring and educating people about the owls in both sites.

We’ll keep our fingers crossed that this busy site can work for the little raptors, who arrive here from summer nest sites ranging from California’s Central Valley to Idaho.

Meanwhile, many thanks to Sue Ferrera and her colleagues at the city of Berkeley — as well as to Doug Bell, Scott Possin and Brad Olsen of East Bay Regional Parks — for such a supportive and speedy response.

“In my wildest dreams I didn’t think it would happen so fast,” said Della Dash. “The city of Berkeley has been so wonderful and collaborative with the whole Burrowing Owl program over the years. This is just a wonderful success story.”

Now… if only we could get our national government to respond with similar speed to larger-scale threats to birds and wildlife.

Like rodenticides. Or lead bullets.

Or, of course, climate change.


The Burrowing Owl is listed as a Species of Concern in California. The rapid development of its grassland habitat in the Central Valley has led to a steady decline in its population. Burrowing Owls typically weigh about five ounces and stand about 7.5 to 9.8 inches tall.

Golden Gate Audubon docents have reported sighting two Burrowing Owls near the soccer fields this winter, plus another two at Cesar Chavez Park. 

Educational sign about Burrowing Owls at Cesar Chavez Park

GGAS docents celebrate installation of sign at Cesar Chavez Park in fall 2012

Tags: Berkeley, Berkeley wildlife, Burrowing Owl, Burrowing Owl Docent Program, Golden Gate Audubon Society.


  1. marjorie blackwell
    January 10th, 2013 at 4:19 PM

    Congratulations on a great article, Ilana, and Hats Off to Sue Ferrera and all the incredible, dedicated BUOW docents!

  2. January 10th, 2013 at 5:44 PM

    Way to go! These little guys need all the help they can get. Here in Cape Coral, home of the largest population of the Florida species of the BUOW, the owls pick the darnedest places to settle. Finding them only feet from a sidewalk is not unusual here. Trying to protect them is quite a challenge. It’s great to hear your success story.

  3. January 11th, 2013 at 5:56 AM

    This is very cool news. Congrats!

  4. Lisa
    January 11th, 2013 at 10:25 AM

    It’s so great that the parks and rec folks are so responsive. It’s also sad that 1/5 of the owls was likely killed by an off leash dog. Dogs rule, but they should be leashed in the area. I hope more people bring the kiddies out to see these amazing owls and that we raise awareness to help them before them become more than just a species of concern!

  5. January 11th, 2013 at 3:18 PM

    Excellent work, thanks from Iowa for your conservation effort!

  6. GGAS
    January 11th, 2013 at 4:30 PM

    Wow – Iowa! We’d encourage you to come out and view the owls this weekend but it would be a pretty long drive. 🙂

  7. January 11th, 2013 at 5:46 PM

    I visited Chavez Park last March and *almost* saw an owl then. Wielding my binoculars, I walked up to a owl-watcher who told me “they were here just a moment ago…” 🙂

  8. Wen Hsu
    January 13th, 2013 at 8:27 AM

    Thank you for the quick response! On 1/12, I noticed that one “fence” was apparently pushed down somewhat at one corner (by trespasser?) and limped a bit. The other (by the trail) has one corner (southeastern) flapping at the bottom. They might need constant maintenance…

  9. GGAS
    January 13th, 2013 at 7:58 PM

    Thanks for letting us know! I’ve passed your info on the fences on to our docents.

  10. Pipi Ray Diamond
    January 14th, 2013 at 8:33 PM

    I just saw a Burrowing Owl today on Bay Farm Island in Alameda! It was east of the pedestrian bridge that goes from Bay Farm Island to the rest of the City of Alameda behind a fence so I think it’s safe from dogs. It was near the path that goes along the water of the estuary by Shoreline Park, the model airplane field, and Doolittle Pond. If you go looking it was in the area behind the fence between the pedestrian bridge and a big Eucalyptus tree on the path.

  11. GGAS
    January 14th, 2013 at 8:38 PM

    That’s super! Thanks for letting us know.

  12. January 15th, 2013 at 7:45 AM

    Thanks for the quick work and posting the news. I went out this past weekend and one owl was very cooperative with viewing and photos.Here is a link to my flickr site with a few more photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sandysteinman/sets/72157632527344526/

  13. GGAS
    January 15th, 2013 at 11:43 AM

    Nice shots! I see you got a good one of a Surf Scoter too.