The burrowing owls that make Cesar Chavez Park their winter home are bringing together dog owners and bird fans who are both urging the city to do more to enforce leash laws to prevent the rare birds from being harassed and chased from the park.
The small brown and cream mottled owls, with their piercing yellow eyes and long skinny legs, face continued threats at the park, including dogs disturbing their protected nesting areas when owners let them wander outside the park’s off-leash zone with minimal supervision.
Two owls returned to the park this winter season, after none were spotted last season, according to tallies from the Golden Gate Audubon Society.
Bird watchers are concerned that the uncontrolled dogs and other predators — such as other raptors and feral cats — could chase the tiny owls away from the park for good. Dog owners who frequent the park say they are also concerned and want the city to step in and do something about it.
Off-leash dogs, with and without human handlers, have been filmed running into the protected bird refuge on the northeast corner of the park and scaring away the owls, who don’t always stick to their human-assigned spot. Longtime North Berkeley-resident Martin Nicolaus who documents the birds almost daily on his Cesar Chavez Park website has recorded such interactions and his own observations of dog owners ignoring the park’s leash rules.
The official off-leash area for dogs is a 17-acre patch at the center of the 90-acre park. It abuts a 7-acre nature preserve where neither humans nor dogs are supposed to go, and the owl refuge is a small sliver to the northeast of that. On any typical day, off-leash dogs, eye-witnessed by this reporter who owns a dog and frequently visits the park, can be seen running through the tall grasses and bushes of the nature area and bounding toward the shoreline unleashed. Some of the signs that indicate the boundaries between areas are missing, or hard to read because the lettering has faded with age.
The refuge area is also home to a 2010 art installation that is intended to both protect the owls and provide viewing areas for humans. The installation includes earthen walls that create a physical barrier and wire fencing that is hung during the months when the owls are at the park, roughly between October and March known as the “overwintering season.” However, the fencing is more of a symbolic barrier as many dogs — and people — can easily jump over or through it, according to Nicolaus, and have chased the owls further toward the shoreline. “Some dogs do respect it and don’t go in, but any number of dogs have gone in and have romped through here,” he said.
During an owl watching park visit on a brisk morning in March with Nicolaus, no dogs were seen in the protected area, but Nicolaus says he sees it all the time.
“This morning we’re not seeing any dogs running through but if we stay a little longer we probably will,” he said. “I’m sure almost every day people run their dogs [off leash] in this area.”
As Nicolaus positioned his tripod and digital camera to capture some video of the beloved burrowing owl, a runner zoomed by on the 1.25-mile perimeter trail with a dark grey standard poodle running off leash beside her. The owner and dog ran while Nicolaus was fiddling with the camera and this reporter didn’t have a chance to ask the owner if she was aware of the existing leash laws and how she was breaking them.
Later we saw another owner on the perimeter trail with an off-leash brown pit-bull mix who quickly attached a leash when Nicolaus reminded her of the laws and thanked him for the reminder. Nicolaus said he often does not receive such polite responses from dog owners.
West Berkeley resident and dog owner Chris Knowlton has been using the park for the past 17 years and blames a lot of the problems at the park on insufficient city enforcement.
“There’s been no enforcement for years,” she said, noting that she goes to the park almost daily and has never seen a Berkeley Animal Care Services officer there. She said she’s seeing more off-leash dogs in on-leash areas now than ever before. “For me as a dog owner, I don’t like that it creates a lot of animosity with other users of the park.”
Knowlton has approached dog owners who have their dogs off leash but says she’s been cursed out and otherwise yelled at, so she’s stopped trying.
“It’s not my job to police the rules,” she said. “If people were ticketed, it would get out very fast that if you walk your dog off leash you’ll get a ticket. The city needs to do its job, they need to go out there and do more than [give a warning], they need to ticket people.”
Claudia Kawczynska has lived in Berkeley for 28 years. She owns a dog, frequents the park regularly, serves as a Berkeley Parks and Waterfront Commissioner and is a member of the commission’s Off-Leash Dog Area at Cesar Chavez Park sub-committee. She is also the founder and editor in chief of The Bark magazine. She says that it’s a small minority of dog owners who either don’t know or don’t pay attention to the rules. She fears that ignorant people or willful scofflaws could ruin it for a majority of people who are responsible and want good relations with other park visitors, both human and owl.
“It’s just getting worse. One or two [owners] can cause so much disruption — how do you deal with it?” she said. Kawczynska calls the park a “gem” for the city that people aren’t respecting as they should. “We are there at the behest of the city, if we slip too much, they can take it away from us.”
The Golden Gate Audubon Society has hard data on how many dogs are running off leash in the wrong areas of the park. According to the society’s annual burrowing owl report, which includes counts from a group of volunteer docents that watch for the owls along the East Bay shoreline, a majority of dog owners who walk past Audubon volunteers at the park keep their dogs on leash near the protected northeastern section. The society reported that almost 75% of dogs passing the owl refuge area were on leash during the 2017-2018 “overwintering” season when the birds spend the winter months at the park, up from 63% the year before. The numbers are trending upwards, but that still means that one in four owners are letting their dogs run off-leash illegally. The most recent seasonal report has not yet been released.
According to Berkeley Animal Care Services Manager Amelia Funghi, who is responsible for enforcement of the city’s off-leash ordinance, the law demands that a dog must be leashed, or within six feet of its owner and under voice control at all times, anywhere in the city. In city parks, however, all dogs must be leashed at all times, except in Cesar Chavez’s Off-Leash Area and the Ohlone Dog Park. Unlike Ohlone, Cesar Chavez’s dog area is unfenced, which is one reason so many off-leash dogs are running through nature areas and other protected, on-leash portions of the park.
According to a rough estimate by Funghi, the city issues 100-150 dog-at-large citations annually throughout the city. Citations issued by the city are administered through Alameda County’s Traffic Court, not the city, and fines can be anywhere from $100 to $200, according to Funghi.
The video below, shot by Martin Nicolaus on Feb. 11, 2019, appears to show an off-leash dog going after a burrowing owl:
Tickets are rarely issued, according to Funghi, because of low staffing and financial constraints. “We have one officer in the field a day for the whole city,” she said, adding that her department is also responsible for policing the Albany Bulb due to a contract with the City of Albany. “Most of the time the officer prioritizes animals at-large or injured animals, so those take priority. We are doing park patrols including Cesar Chavez Park, but it may not happen every day. Many days they just don’t get to it.”
She also said that her office has not seen an uptick in dog complaints at the park. Although she did say that patrolling Cesar Chavez and Strawberry Creek Park were priorities for her officers going forward.
A March 7 visit to the park by an animal control officer was photographed by Nicolaus (and posted on his website) and resulted in a warning of a park visitor for having her dog off leash in the on-leash area. According to a post on the “Dogs of Cesar Chavez Park at the Berkeley Marina” Facebook page by the woman who said she received the warning, she insisted that she was in the off leash area and that she was following park rules. Berkeleyside reached out to her for comment and she asked not to be identified. However, she said it is the park maps themselves that are confusing and that the animal control officer was also confused about where the boundaries were. Via Facebook Messenger she wrote that she saw three other owners with dogs off leash that ignored the officer at the same time that she received a warning. She also said that she would contact Berkeley’s Animal Control Services to discuss her experience. “I do support enforcement. Eighty percent of dog people are good; it’s the newer users who are confused,” she said.
Funghi said she has met with the city’s marina manager, Alexa Endress, to improve the signs along the boundary to reduce confusion about where the on-leash area begins.
“The perimeter is marked, but some of it is missing, some of it is old and hard to see,” she said. “[We are] working to get more signage up [around the] perimeter of the off leash area, we are working together on that.” She did not have a timeline for when such signage would be completed.
City spokesperson Matthai Chakko said the city will be doing more enforcement at the park and has recently installed new signs to indicate proper boundaries around the park. The city also plans to install “many more [signs] in the next couple weeks. In addition, we’ll be putting in dozens of boundary markers,” he wrote by email in response to questions from Berkeleyside.
Chakko said more permanent fencing around the off-leash area would be very expensive for the city to install — estimates for extensive and permanent fencing was roughly $100,000, and many dog owners have expressed their opposition to such a plan. He said one of the main reasons the signage at the park is so bad is because unknown dog owners are vandalizing and destroying them.
“People rip them out – even if they’re in cement,” he wrote. “Some people don’t want any restrictions on where their dogs can and can’t go.”
This story was updated shortly after publication after the city provided information.
Bonus: Everything you wanted to know about burrowing owls
Burrowing owls are classified by California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife as a “species of special concern” and face dwindling suitable habitats in the region. The birds were once common throughout California but they only have a few strongholds left, including a closed refuge in the South Bay and the Central and Imperial Valleys, where their numbers are dwindling. The birds, which typically weigh one-third of a pound and stand anywhere from 7.5 to 10 inches tall, spend October to March in the Bay Area, ranging from colder northern climates such as the Pacific Northwest and Canada. One burrowing owl spotted at the park several years ago had been tagged in Idaho, according to Golden Gate Audubon Society Executive Director Cindy Margulis, which means the tiny bird travelled anywhere from 700 to 1,000 miles to get to the park.
The owls are unusual because they burrow underground and unlike most owls are active during the day. They appropriate the burrows of ground squirrels and other small creatures for their homes, which are plentiful at the park, and also thrive in the rip-rap stone work that rings and protects the park from the waves of the bay, according to Margulis. “This park is really special, so many people love [it]” she said. “You have these really special animals, it’s the kind of place in an urban setting where we can get people to love wildlife and where they can see it.”
The owls, says Margulis, are mortally afraid of dogs. Even dogs that don’t physically invade an owl’s space can add to high levels of anxiety and convince them that the park is not a safe place to stay. “It does not have to do with your dog’s behavior, but the cumulative exposure to mortal predators,” she said. “All those things are really a menace for ground-dwelling creatures like [the owls].”
A success story that Margulis points to as a potential model for the burrowing owls at Cesar Chavez is the story of the snowy plovers at Crown Beach in Alameda. Golden Gate Audubon worked with the East Bay Regional Park District to protect the endangered shoreline birds, roughly the size of a person’s fist, whose breeding is easily disrupted by human activity. Golden Gate Audubon encouraged people to stay away from where the plovers roosted, installed good signage, and put up what Margulis calls “symbolic” fencing, which indicates clearly where people—and dogs—should not go rather than a strong barrier. Since the techniques were adopted at Crown Beach, the snowy plover population has quadrupled in four years, according to Margulis. “So that is super encouraging, it shows that the technique can work,” she said. “Hopefully that same technique could work at Cesar Chavez. I would love to quadruple the owl population [there] given the population as a whole.”