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Introducing Berkeley’s New City Bird: The Barn Owl

By Joe Eaton Special to the Planet
Tuesday April 25, 2006

It’s official! Last Tuesday night the Berkeley City Council approved a resolution sponsored by councilmembers Betty Olds and Dona Spring, designating the barn owl as our city bird. I was at Old City Hall for the event but did not make it into the council chamber, which was packed with young jocks lobbying for the Derby Street baseball field.  

So Berkeley joins the company of San Francisco (whose almost-extirpated city bird is the California quail), Portland and Seattle (the great blue heron, in both cases), and Chicago (the peregrine falcon). The only other North American civic bird I was able to locate via Google is the beautiful and outlandish roseate spoonbill, adopted by Port Aransas, Texas. 

But the city-bird thing seems to be widespread in East Asia. Seoul, South Korea has the magpie; Xiamen, China, the egret; Keelung, Taiwan, the (unspecified) eagle. And there are a bunch of Japanese cities with avian mascots: Hamamatsu’s swallow, Morioka’s wagtail, Chiba’s little tern, and more. 

Why the barn owl? Well, it’s both esthetically appealing—the artist George M. Sutton thought it was one of the most beautiful of American birds—and handy to have around. As the Planet has reported, Berkeley has a rodent problem, and it’s not confined to Willard Park. I’ve already written about the barn owl’s efficacy as a rodent-killer, so I won’t belabor that point.  

I should mention, though, that this bird specializes almost exclusively on rodents. The larger and more powerful great horned owl may go after cats (as well as wild mammals of similar size: skunks, raccoons, opossums, even porcupines), but not the barn owl. A few barn owls have been known to hunt birds, mostly mass-roosting species like starlings—which wouldn’t be missed—and blackbirds, and some eat Jerusalem crickets. Otherwise it’s all mice, rats, gophers, and the occasional shrew. 

Besides, the barn owl seems like a good fit for this town. Berkeley likes to think of itself as the Athens of the West: well, in classical Greece the owl was the bird of Athena. 

Its image graced Athenian coins, and it was associated with victory and prosperity. Although owls have often had a sinister reputation, some peoples, including the Ainu and the Cherokee, revered them or at least saw admirable qualities in them. 

The Cherokee used to bathe their children’s eyes in an owl-feather infusion to give them the ability to stay awake all night. I’m not sure why this would have been a good thing.  

The barn owl, fittingly, is among the world’s most cosmopolitan bird species. It’s found on every continent except Antarctica, and many oceanic islands. Flexible in its nesting requirements, all it needs is a supply of rodents and it’s in business. I guess it would be too much of a stretch to associate the owl with Berkeley’s vibrant night life, but we can hope. 

It has occurred to the barn owl’s advocates, Lisa Owens Viani and Donna Mickelson of the group Keep Barn Owls in Berkeley, that a lot of the Planet’s readers may have had their own owl encounters. 

Maybe you’ve watched the owlets on California Street being fed by their hardworking parents, or monitored nests elsewhere in Berkeley. 

Maybe you’ve put up your own owl box (see the Hungry Owl Project’s web site, www.hungryowl.org, for particulars) or teased apart an owl pellet to see what the birds had been eating. Whatever your experience, we’d like you to share it. If you’re a photographer, you may also have owl images as appealing as the Portland youngsters captured by Mike Houck. 

So, in the interest of getting to know our new civic bird a bit better, we’re asking you to send in your owl stories, poems, and pictures. I’ll be the point of contact for email: joe_eaton@speakeasy.net. Or you can mail hard copies to the Planet.  

The best submissions will be published, and the winner will receive a copy of a wonderful video, “Backyard Barn Owls”, produced by Bert Kersey, documenting the home life of a family of southern California owls in a homemade nest box.  

And you’ll be helping Keep Barn Owls in Berkeley assemble a database of barn owl nest and roost sites to provide a clearer picture of our city bird’s status and distribution—citizen science at its best.  

Will the barn owls benefit from their new status? It couldn’t hurt. Having a civic bird creates a certain obligation to keep it around. It was, after all, highly embarrassing some years back when Louisiana, the Pelican State, ran out of pelicans.  


Photograph by Mike Houck, Urban Naturalist, Audubon Society of Portland, Ore.  

The Berkeley City Council last week named the barn owl the official city bird.