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Berkeley’s Barn Owls: The View From 1926

By Joe Eaton, Special to the Planet
Tuesday October 24, 2006

Berkeley was a much different place 80 years ago. But then as now, it was prime barn owl territory. During the summer of 1926, E. Raymond Hall of UC’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology kept track of a family of owls nesting in the tower of the First Presbyterian Church that then stood at Dana and Channing. Hall, who habitually worked late, heard them calling while walking home from the museum between 10 p.m. and midnight. 

Curious about their diet, he persuaded the church custodian to give him and Professor G. L. Foster access to the tower. Beneath the perches of the two adults and five nearly fledged young owls was a treasure trove of pellets—the residual bones, fur, and feathers coughed up by the birds. 

Allen painstakingly teased apart the pellets, identified their components, and tabulated them by species. His results, published in the Condor, the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Society, in 1927, make interesting reading. (I am indebted to Lisa Owens Viani, founder of Keep Barns Owls in Berkeley, for discovering Allen’s article, and to the University of New Mexico, whose Searchable Ornithological Research Archive project has made the contents of the Condor, the Auk, the Wilson Bulletin, and other journals available on-line.) 

Of nine mammal species represented in the pellets, the California vole (“meadow mouse,” in Allen’s terminology) was by far the most abundant, with 276 individuals. Pocket gophers came in a distant second (84), followed by white-footed mice (52). Only 37 house mice and two Norway rats were identified. Other bits and pieces included the remains of two young brush rabbits, a shrew, a song sparrow, and two Jerusalem crickets. 

Allen noted that the church owls’ diet differed from that of barn owls in Wildcat Canyon, which Foster had previously analyzed, in representing a narrower range of prey species and fewer white-footed mice. “The greater number of House Mice found in the church tower is hard to explain,” he wrote. Well, as a Berkeley resident and occasional house mouse victim, I find that statement hard to explain. Maybe house mice were more discreet in 1926. 

The First Presbyterian barn owls, Allen figured, were hunting mostly in the Berkeley Hills. He had detected east- and west-bound owl traffic over his home on Panoramic Way, up to 17 in a single summer evening. A couple were seen carrying pocket gophers back to their urban nests. Allen figured the owls would have a particularly strong impact on the voles, or meadow mice; his own vole surveys detected a sparser population near the Berkeley city limits than farther east, along the crest of the hills.  

“[T]he utilitarian-minded will infer,” he wrote, “that this belt, with a relatively small meadow mouse population along the city limits, functions as a protection to the well-watered, green lawns in the city. These lawns the meadow mice would seriously damage during the dry season, if a sufficient population could exist in proximity to them. Thus a possible conclusion is that, in Berkeley, a sufficient population of Barn Owls is one factor in maintaining attractive lawns!” 

It’s hard to avoid a twinge of nostalgia for such innocent times when the main perceived rodent problem was meadow mice munching the lawn, not rats frolicking in city parks. But at least the barn owls are still on the job. 

Readers may recall that around the time the barn owl became Berkeley’s city bird, I invited readers to send in owl-inspired stories, poems, art, whatever. I can’t say that the response was overwhelming. However, I did get the poem by eight-year-old Jackson Kinder—a shaped poem, apparently—that accompanies this column. Thanks, Jackson, and my apologies for not getting it into print sooner. The same to Penny Bartlett, whose reminiscence of house-hunting barn owls will appear in a future issue of the Planet. 

And in other owl news, the estimable Hungry Owl Project is having a fund-raising event on October 26 at the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross, from 6 to 9 p.m. HOP’s second annual Evening with Owls will be hosted by Joe Mueller, biology professor at the College of Marin, and will feature a presentation on great gray owls by Jon Winters. (No, there are no great gray owls in Berkeley, more’s the pity. These are mountain birds, sparsely distributed in the Sierra). Live owls will be present. Tickets ($50) may still be available; call (415) 898-7721, or visit www.hungryowl.org.