Wild Neighbors; Owls and Art at Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park

By Joe Eaton
Thursday January 21, 2010 - 09:47:00 AM
A burrowing owl keeps a wary eye on passing dog-walkers at the Berkeley Marina.
Ron Sullivan
A burrowing owl keeps a wary eye on passing dog-walkers at the Berkeley Marina.

Sometimes this dysfunctional city actually gets it right. Last year I had a conversation and some e-mail exchanges with David Snippen of the Berkeley Civic Arts Commission about an environmental art installation that was being planned for Cesar Chavez Park. The donor had stipulated the site, which was right on top of a stretch of riprap where a small group of western burrowing owls spend the winter. It sounded like a high-minded instance of plop art (remember the Marina’s notorious Guardian statue?) 

Snippen said the commission was prepared to work with Golden Gate Audubon in choosing a design that would have minimal impact on the owls, a California “species of special concern.” I have to admit that I was dubious. But it looks as if the art project has in fact accommodated the needs of these rare and declining birds. 

Credit for that goes in large part to GGA volunteer Della Dash, who served on the design selection committee. “They said we had the deciding vote on which proposal would win,” Dash says. “We spoke with the artists and tried to educate people about the owls.” 

Some proposals were clearly inappropriate. “Some involved 10- or 15-foot-tall statues,” says GGA conservation director Mike Lynes.  

“We said there should be nothing too high,” adds Dash. “It could have provided perching sites for raptors that might prey on the owls.” There is no professional courtesy among birds of prey. 

“I don’t think they really understood what it meant to put the installation in that place—one of the last places we find owls out there,” says Lynes, who wrote the technical documents used in grading proposals. Ironically, the donor turned out to be more flexible about siting than was first assumed. The winning design, by artists Jennifer Reed and John Madden, is a relatively unobtrusive structure with low recessed walls. I saw a model in the Berkeley harbor master’s office, and it won’t be the Great Pyramid. Installation will begin in March, after the owls have departed for the season. 

Dash was instrumental in getting temporary orange plastic fencing set up around the owls’ wintering site in 2008 after she noticed them being harassed by off-leash dogs. The fence is mostly effective, but people and dogs still cross it—sometimes to feed the California ground squirrels whose burrows the owls appropriate. And a few owls persist in staying outside the fence. When I visited the site with Dash and Lynes, we watched a leashed dog towing its owner toward an owl on the riprap. 

Education continues. GGA has developed fliers about the burrowing owls and organized volunteer docents, who complete monitoring forms noting the birds’ locations and activities. These must be among the best-documented burrowing owls anywhere. 

Dash and Lynes say there are at least three owls inside the fence this season, plus two more in the adjacent unfenced meadow and at least one in the eastern section of nearby Eastshore State Park, where habitat restoration is in progress. Habitat has been created for the birds on the Albany Plateau as mitigation for the Tom Bates Regional Sports complex, but so far no owls have been detected using it. 

These are all wintering birds. There are a handful of breeding records for Berkeley and Albany, but none more recent than 1922. “Wildlife managers have been slow to realize the importance of wintering habitat,” says Lynes. “We recognize that for neotropical migrants, but undervalue wintering habitat in North America.” It’s not clear where the Cesar Chavez owls are coming from; burrowing owls banded in British Columbia, eastern Washington, and Idaho have been observed elsewhere in California.  

Consistent with regional patterns, the number of owls using the Marina has fallen over the years. “Ten years ago there were 13 to 15 wintering owls at Cesar Chavez Park,” Dash says. Last winter there were only four. Overall, breeding pairs along the Bayshore declined by more than 50 percent between surveys in 1991-93 and 2006-07.  

Although some Bay Area cities have allowed developers to displace burrowing owls, Dash praises Berkeley’s response: “The city has been extremely helpful with this project. City Council members came out to see the owls themselves. The city provided fencing for the wintering site. The maintenance crew has been wonderful. East Bay Regional Park docents have joined the GGA docents. There’s been a tremendous amount of public education and awareness-raising.” 

With no coherent federal or state conservation strategy for these vulnerable birds, it’s good to see at least one local government doing the right thing.