In August 2010, an $100,000 art installation went in at the Berkeley Marina’s Cesar Chavez Park designed in part to protect the few burrowing owls that overwinter there every year. Project backers meant no harm, and the artists made every effort to accommodate and safeguard the tiny birds. Still, we’ve been a bit skeptical things would work out; if the treasured owls were already returning to the site every year, why mess with it?
Two winters in, it appears the marina’s owls don't mind one way or the other. While last winter saw a dip to three resident owls from six the year before, Golden Gate Audubon Society Conservation Director Mike Lynes reported that five individuals have been spotted consistently at the site this season, which he deems “a good turnout.” Two have found burrows within the art installation, while three are beyond it along the park’s northern bank. Another one or two have been seen at the nearby Berkeley Meadow. Burrowing owls often return to the same exact spot every winter, but Lynes said he’s not certain if this year’s birds are the same individuals as those identified in 2011 and 2010. As many as fifteen visited the site just over a decade ago.
A central feature of the marina installation is low fencing designed to keep dogs away from the birds, but Lynes reports it’s had mixed results. Beyond the fact that three of the birds have burrowed in an unfenced area, the other two have been subject to occasional harassment by off-leash dogs that frequently venture into the area. Volunteer docents are often stationed nearby to discourage trespass into the habitat, share information, and help visitors find the birds and watch them through a spotting scope.
Burrowing owl populations are in rapid decline throughout California due to habitat loss — particularly in the Bay Area, where only one nesting population remains in the South Bay. The bird is currently listed in the state as a species of special concern, but Lynes believes it deserves to be listed as a protected species. A past attempt failed largely for political reasons, he said. “We’ll just have to see when Fish and Game will step up and list the species.”
The owls will likely remain at Cesar Chavez Park through March before returning to points north, and can often be viewed from the concrete path traveling its perimeter.