One of two burrowing owls recently seen at Cesar Chavez Park. Credit: Martin Nicolaus

As many of us prepare to return home this holiday season, a couple of our avian friends have already made the trek. Earlier this month, local wildlife lovers celebrated the much-anticipated return of burrowing owls to Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park.

As the only ground-dwelling owl in North America, the burrowing owl is special. It is active during the day and spends much of the time outside its burrow, making it easier to view than most owls. Just larger than a robin, it has a flat head, a brown-and-white spotted body, large yellow eyes and exceptionally long legs for an owl.

Learn more about East Bay burrowing owls on the Golden Gate Audubon Society website

While these charming birds have long spent their winters in the Bay Area, their numbers have dwindled to the brink of extinction, making this year’s return of two owls a reason to rejoice. Because the recent rains will increase prey for their food supply, experts hope that more owls are on their way.

The two owls have been spotted at the northeast corner of the park. Both were seen behind the fencing at the Open Circle viewpoint, one perched on the rocks along the eastern water’s edge, and the other sitting in a small pit near a coyote bush. Burrowing owls have also been spotted at Point Isabel and the Albany Bulb plateau, but it’s not certain whether these are additional owls or the same two from Cesar Chavez.

Burrowing owls have been present at Cesar Chavez Park since the city dump was closed, capped and developed into a park in 1991. In the early years, there was no formalized program to track or count the owls. But in 2007, the Golden Gate Audubon Society and the City of Berkeley formed the East Bay Shoreline Burrowing Owl Monitoring Program to conduct habitat management and owl monitoring. The group works in conjunction with the East Bay Regional Park District and neighboring cities to monitor the shoreline from Emeryville to Richmond. Since 2007, the program has counted an average of four owls per year, with numbers fluctuating between two and six.

Burrowing owls can be identified by their flat heads, brown-and-white spotted bodies and large yellow eyes. Credit: Martin Nicolaus

It’s not easy to safeguard these owls. In 2011, the Open Circle Foundation funded an art installation at the northeast corner of Cesar Chavez Park intended to serve as a protective barrier. In addition, park management puts up fencing during the winter months meant to provide added security. But the owls don’t always nest inside the protected areas, and some dog owners allow their dogs to run off-leash in designated leash areas, including the path near the Open Circle, which greatly endangers the owls as some dogs can get through the current fencing. In 2016, a dead owl was found at the park with puncture wounds in its neck. While the body disappeared and no autopsy could be performed, it was likely attacked by dogs or raptors.

In 2019, local dog owners and bird lovers tried to persuade the City of Berkeley to put up better signage regarding leash laws at Cesar Chavez Park and to impose more fines on dog owners who fail to keep their animals on leash. The city is currently making signage for the fenced site to notify the public of its closure during the winter season and is working to reinforce the fencing and improve the gates at the Open Circle site. 

“We request that the public keep dogs on leash and not enter the enclosed area at Cesar Chavez Park until the fencing is removed in the spring,” said Della Dash, manager of the Burrowing Owl Monitoring Program.

They eat insects, lizards, small mammals and birds

Burrowing owls populate a broad swath of the Americas. They live in Canadian grasslands, the U.S. plains and western states, Mexico, Central America, and as far south as Tierra del Fuego. Their habitat includes grasslands, prairies, farmland, and other open areas with low-lying grass or bare soil.

Martin Nicolaus, whose photographs appear in this story, has been monitoring this season’s burrowing owls closely in the Cesar Chavez Conservancy newsletter. Here’s how to subscribe.

While burrowing owls used to breed in the Bay Area, now they only “over-winter” here during the non-breeding season, arriving as early as September and departing by April. They fly elsewhere to mate, build nests and hatch broods. The Burrowing Owl Monitoring Program traced one banded owl to a site in Idaho and got the thrilling news from wildlife authorities that it returned to Idaho two years in a row, fledging two groups of chicks between a spring and summer.

“We were thrilled,” said Dash. “We realized how important this program is. Saving even a few owls can mean the difference between their ongoing existence and eradication from a given habitat site.”

This year’s owls are already busy eating their diet of insects, lizards, small mammals, and birds. To hunt, they may swoop down on prey from a perch, but more often, they hover or run across the ground to catch prey in their talons. Between forays for food, they can be found sleeping or standing outside their burrows. While this behavior makes them easy for us to observe and admire, it leaves them vulnerable to threats from humans, dogs, and raptors.

Burrowing owls often use holes dug by ground squirrels. Credit: Martin Nicolaus

Protecting these small owls is extremely important right now. Burrowing owl populations declined approximately 33% between 1966 and 2015, with declines among the sharpest in California, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. As a result, the burrowing owl is listed as a federal and state “species of special concern” and is a likely candidate for California’s Endangered Species Act.

“The most substantial threats to the burrowing owl come from loss of grassland habitat, habitat fragmentation due to human encroachment, food shortages, pesticides, and mortality during migration and in wintering areas,” said Dash. “Also, wind-generated power is responsible for substantial numbers of bird kills for burrowing owls and raptors.”

Here in the Bay Area, local organizations and individuals are making heroic efforts to protect the owls that winter on our shores. Working together, we may yet be able to prevent further population declines and celebrate many more burrowing owl homecomings in the years ahead.

Next time you’re out at Cesar Chavez Park please:

  • Keep all dogs leashed, except in the designated off-leash areas.
  • Don’t allow dogs to approach the owls or chase any other wildlife in the park.
  • Watch quietly, don’t point at them, and limit the amount of time you spend observing the owls. Crowds and noise may stress them.

Gail Kurtz, a recently retired stewardship manager at UC Berkeley, is an avid birder who often writes about her beloved avian friends on behalf of the Golden Gate Audubon Society.