Park visitor and runner Heidi Sachs this week found a dead Burrowing Owl on a bench at the northwest corner of the park. She took photographs and reported the matter to Berkeleyside, which published a report on Friday. The death is of sharp concern because Burrowing Owls are not only a unique, interesting, and endearing bird, but are endangered, due mainly to loss of habitat to development. There is a preserve set aside for them on the northeast corner of the park, but the number of owls visiting each successive winter has been declining. See the extended discussion on this website, here. Losing even one bird could mean the end of their presence in the park for the foreseeable future.
After taking pictures, Sachs left the dead bird where she saw it. She reported that a passer-by told her that the bird appeared to have puncture wounds on the head. Then the bird disappeared, and at the time of Berkeleyside’s publication, the whereabouts of the carcass were unknown. Lacking the opportunity to examine the bird, there was only speculation about the cause of death.
The location of the bench where Sachs photographed the bird is more than 500 yards from the fenced refuge set aside for wintering Burrowing Owls on the northeast corner of the park. Although Burrowing Owls have sometimes been observed in the “Nature Area” in the northeast segment of the park, outside the fenced area on the shoreline, none has ever been observed (to my knowledge) in the vicinity of the bench where the dead bird was photographed. These owls roost in ground squirrel burrows, preferably on flat ground with short grass. Thanks to thorough mowing about a month ago, their fenced preserve in the northeast corner fits those desiderata. They thrive in places like golf courses, along irrigation canals, and on mowed greens alongside airport runways. The ground around the bench is hilly and rough, not acceptable Burrowing Owl territory. Very probably, the bird met its demise in or near the fenced preserve and was carried to this spot. A human likely put it on the bench.
Speculation in Berkeleyside raised three possibilities for foul play: feral cats, other birds of prey, and dogs.
Feral cats exist in the park, but their homes are far from the Burrowing Owl preserve. I have seen and photographed one feral cat in the woody area near the southwest corner of the park, behind the picnic area. That’s more than 600 yards as the crow flies from the owl preserve, and a cat that wanted to make this trek would have to cross the unfenced off-leash dog area in the center of the park. Two other feral cats have a home about 800 yards away from the owl preserve, in the bushes alongside the boat repair and sailing club building. Someone supplies them with ample dry food, water, and shelter there. These cats have no cause to go looking for food at the extreme diagonal opposite of the park, and look too fat to endure the trek. In my opinion,
this owl was not killed by a cat.
I once photographed a raccoon on the shoreline along the northeast corner of the park, within a few yards of the fenced owl preserve. However, this individual had serious damage in one eye, and navigated the water’s edge so slowly and gingerly in the direction of the hotel that the bird population was probably quite safe from its approach. I never saw another raccoon anywhere in the park.
I’ve seen the occasional Red-tailed Hawk in the park, as well as a low-flying Northern Harrier, and a White-tailed Kite. Saw the kite just the other day, hovering like a big slow hummingbird, the way they do. They do kill other birds for food if they can catch them, including other birds of prey. But when they do, they carry them off in their claws to a safe place, often up in a tree, and eat them. If this Burrowing Owl had been killed by another bird of prey, all that anyone would have found of it would be a ragged pile of feathers and possibly a few bones. This owl was not killed by another bird of prey.
In April 2015, I came across and photographed a dead jackrabbit lying on the grass, a few feet from the bench where Sachs photographed the dead owl. The rear end of the animal had been mauled and chewed. This was a dog kill. I’ve seen an off-leash dog chasing a rabbit in this area of the park, and there is a photograph taken a few years earlier by Robert Dang of a dog hunting a rabbit here, with the owner looking on.
Burrowing Owls are unique in that they usually hunt by running after their prey, not by flying. A hunting type of dog would chase a running Burrowing Owl like it would chase a rabbit. And, once it caught the bird, the dog would bite it until it was still, and if it was a trained bird dog, it might carry the dead bird to its owner. Several familiar breeds beloved as family dogs, such as Lab and Golden Retrievers, among others, got their “Retriever” label from their skill at grabbing birds in their jaws and carrying them back to the hunter.
Scott Artis, Executive Director of the Urban Bird Foundation and the Burrowing Owl Conservation Network, is quoted in Berkeleyside as saying that the fencing around the Burrowing Owl preserve in Cesar Chavez Park is “not completely secure.” That’s an understatement. The fence consists of six loose horizontal wires that would seriously snag a kid’s tricycle, but wouldn’t even slow down a dog, any dog. I’ve seen more than one dog off leash inside that fence.
Unless and until the dead bird’s body is found and analyzed, there’s no way of knowing for sure how it died. However, weighing the probabilities, you can pretty much rule out feral cats, raccoons, and other birds of prey. The circumstances point to a dog. But it’s a mistake to blame the dog. Hunting and killing is what their genes program them to do. They don’t exercise free will or make moral choices about it. That’s the prerogative of their owners. Most dog owners would be horrified that their dog had killed a bird, particularly a Burrowing Owl. But there is a handful of dog owners out there who value their dog’s sport and “exercise” more highly than the life of a bird.
Three additional photos of the dead owl obtained by Della Dash, Burrowing Owl docent coordinator, strengthen the case that the killer was a dog. One of the photos shows feathers on one side matted by moisture, compatible with a dog’s saliva.