Home & Garden Columns

Barn Owls: House Hunting in Berkeley

By Penny Bartlett, Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 05, 2006

Editor’s note: The following article was submitted to Joe Eaton in response to his call for readers’ stories about barn owls. His column will return the Tuesday after next. 


It was just after dark on an evening in late July when I heard that screeching noise again. Raspy and raucous, reminding me of fingernails on a blackboard. It went on into the night with only occasional pauses. I had heard it the previous summer for a couple of months; it seemed to be coming from a tree next door. I never got around to finding out what it was and never noticed when it stopped. 

But now it was back. This time I would find out. I went out the gate onto Sacramento Street, looking at the tall trees in my neighbors’ yards. The screeching was louder but not nearby. I walked down the block, crossed Bancroft and continued into the next block. The sound was obnoxious. 

It was coming from a large Canary Island palm tree in somebody’s back yard. I did some minor stalking to see which yard it was, then knocked on a front door. 

The woman living there told me the palm tree was just over her back fence. Every year a pair of barn owls nested there, and every summer the babies made a huge racket at night, most of the night. Her daughter’s bedroom was close to the tree and sometimes it was hard for the daughter to sleep. I couldn’t imagine sleeping there since I could hear the noise clearly a block away. And who would have thought an owl could make such sounds; owls are supposed to hoot.  

A palm tree in the middle of Berkeley seemed a strange home for a barn owl, but I learned that they will also nest in cliffs, riverbanks, caves, church steeples, haystacks and even duck nesting boxes. Since there aren’t a lot of barns or haystacks in Berkeley, maybe a palm tree is upscale urban housing. If they nest in a tree it’s in a hollow cavity. Maybe under the mop of palm fronds there was a nice invisible hole. 

Now I began hearing other owl sounds almost every night. A short screech above me as I walked down the path to my house. Metallic clicking sounds and the smallest fluff of wings beating close overhead. A series of raspy screeches right outside my bedroom window as I fell asleep. How had I not noticed all this before? 

I had glimpses of a soft shadow sailing over a neighbor’s fence. I stood on the sidewalk in front of the palm tree in the moonlight and saw a shadow fly into the crown of the tree. 

The racket calmed down and I assumed some owlets were gulping rodent delicacies. 

Usually nestlings are quiet when parents are hunting until the parents approach with food, but these barn owlets kept up a continuous squawking. I thought maybe they just didn’t like being left alone; then learned that only the male hunts and mama is always home. The male hands his catch over to her and she tears it up and feeds the chicks and herself. It seemed strange that mama’s presence didn’t quiet the kids. 

During July and August the night chorus got gradually louder, then at the end of summer it stopped. I found another palm tree neighbor who had watched owlets fall out of the nest each year and bump around on the ground until their wings were strong enough to fly. 

She had seen this year’s brood and watched parents feeding them on the ground; now the kids had gone off on their own. 

Early the next summer I was paying attention. Then one night I saw a pair of ghostly white birds doing an aerial dance above Allston Way near Sacramento. Barn owls look brownly speckled from above but seen from below they are white. 

I watched them soaring and swooping around each other in graceful loops, clicking their bills and screeching. It looked like owl love. 

A week later I was sitting outside in the dusk with my neighbors when I heard screeches coming closer. I shouted to everyone to look up, and there came both owls, passing not too far above our heads in looping sensuous flight, shrieking as they went. 

A few weeks later the nighttime rackety chorus began, but this time it stopped sooner than in previous years. 

I wondered if all the chicks had fallen out of the nest early. I also knew the local raccoon posse loved to hang out in palm trees, and raccoons will eat anything. 

That winter I was driving down Sacramento when I noticed a big bare spot where the palm tree had been. It had been cut down. No more owl house.  

That was a year ago. Last summer was quiet. No owls. 

But a few nights ago while working at my computer, I heard a faint sound of fingernails on blackboard. It was far away. Then last night, falling asleep, there was a loud screech outside my window. 

I thought, yay! They’re back! But on reflection: either they’re hunting for food, or in this town, where it’s hard to find a place to live and the landlord can tear your house down, they may just be house hunting.