Dear Mr. Phillips:
You became Executive Director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society in March last year, after 30 years in New York City. In recent weeks, an issue has come up about the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary in Cesar Chavez Park. Nearly 400 people have signed a petition for a better fence to protect the owls that may come there in the winter. This open letter conveys my views on that issue. It’s based on six years of watching the owls in the park in all kinds of weather, publishing 212 blog posts, 143 YouTube videos, a 24-minute documentary film, and hundreds of photographs, all visible on the chavezpark.org website. My findings and photos have appeared in Berkeleyside in 2018, 2019, and 2021. I’ve spent hours showing the owls to park visitors up close with a telescopic lens. Many people I meet in the park today know me as “the Owl Guy.” I’ve been an appreciative member of Audubon for years and donate a small monthly amount to the local chapter.
By way of summary, I make four main points here. (1) No Burrowing Owls in Cesar Chavez Park have become victims of raptors. (2) The principal danger to Burrowing Owls in the park is owners of off-leash dogs. (3) Four-foot fences are the minimum standard for dog boundaries. The art fence in Chavez Park is substandard and an isolated case. (4) The Audubon Society has an opportunity to take the lead to replace the art fence with a new fence that offers better security for the owls and runs along a more public-minded route.
(1) No Burrowing Owls in Cesar Chavez Park have become victims of raptors
In all the documentation done by Burrowing Owl docents since 2008 and in my own hours of observation since 2014, there has been no instance of a Burrowing Owl falling victim to a hawk, kite, harrier, or other flying raptor. No observer has ever reported such a case here.
Some raptors hunt by sitting on a pole and watching, then plunging down on the prey. Others, like the Northern Harrier, crisscross the territory with low flights, a few feet off the ground. White-tailed Kites hover in midair, scanning the territory below. The biggest and most dangerous, Red-tailed Hawks, are versatile. They can kite, they can perch high in a tree, a dozen feet up on a bird box, or low on a bush; they can sit on fences of any height, they can swoop inches from the ground, and they can hunt on foot or perch low on the Bayshore rocks.
Human observers have spotted each of these raptors on the north side of the park where owls settle. Park visitors have photographed them many times. Fortunately, the owls quickly also spot them. Their vision is much sharper than our own. Burrowing Owls regularly scan the sky. They easily distinguish non-threatening birds like gulls and crows from raptors such as hawks. This video shows one example among many of an owl scanning the sky and quickly taking shelter.
Owls would immediately spot a raptor sitting on an elevated perch. The owls we see here were born and raised in wilderness areas where raptors are an everyday fact of life. The owls are familiar with them. Some owls choose perches next to tall vegetation that gives them cover from overhead detection. All owls spend the day very close to, sometimes literally inches from, Ground Squirrel burrows or cracks between shoreline rocks. At the first sign of an approaching raptor, they vanish into these shelters with lightning reflexes. They may even confront the raptor aggressively before diving into shelter, as one Burrowing Owl did with a Cooper’s Hawk, as seen in this video.
Certainly, a big raptor killing an owl is possible. Raptors have superb vision and will spot an owl on the ground long before humans do. Raptors would like to kill owls if they could catch them. But so far that has never happened. The owls are wise to raptors. The presence of people in the vicinity also tends to protect the owls, as most raptors will avoid too-close contact with humans.
Some people believe that raptors are the main threat to Burrowing Owls in the park. This belief is speculation without a foundation in evidence.
(2) The main threat to Burrowing Owls in the park is owners of unleashed dogs.
Little or nothing in their wilderness experience prepares the owls for off-leash dogs. The dogs’ mere presence at close range provokes anxiety like nothing else, as shown in this video. But the owls don’t have the same educated reflex response to loose dogs that they have to raptors. They don’t know what the dogs are capable of. Diving into a burrow risks having the dog follow by digging. Flying away exposes them to danger from raptors overhead. In a moment of indecision, the owl may fall prey to a canine.
Twenty years ago, when there was no enclosure around the northeast corner of the park, owls were abundant, and “dogs used to go kill them,” one veteran park visitor told me. Written or photographic records of that period are lacking.
The recorded history of dog attacks on Burrowing Owls in the park goes back only to 2008. In that year, according to a report by Golden Gate Audubon Programs Director Noreen Weeden, “an off-leash dog dug up the den of one of the owls and the owl disappeared.” [Cesar Chavez Park Burrowing Owl Program, Berkeley, California, 2017-2018 Summary Report, p. 1.] In the following year, GGAS started the Burrowing Owl Docent Program. After a training session, volunteer docents went into the park and reported on owls present, if any. Weeden published annual summary reports of the docent’s observations.
The passage of loose dogs was such a common occurrence that owl docents were instructed to tally the numbers. They tallied dogs on leash and off, and they tallied loose dogs that entered the protected area and those that passed on the trail. Every year, the annual reports on the docent program contained this language: “Observers took notes and recorded disturbances to the owls because of off-leash dogs and actions of owners (if any).”
Weeden’s annual reports throw a useful light on dog/owl interactions over the time period when this program operated. This graph shows the number of owls present each winter season (blue line) and the number of off-leash dogs per hour (DPH) recorded by the docent observers during that season (red line). You can find the annual reports on which this is based here.
The graph shows that as the number of off-leash dogs passing per hour increased, the number of owls visiting decreased. The trend lines (heavy red and blue lines) run in opposite directions. More loose dogs = less owls.
Of course, correlation is not causation. These trends might well be independent. The number of Burrowing Owls has decreased statewide, owing to loss of breeding habitat. The number of dogs has increased nationwide. One might see these same trend lines in a different setting where owls and dogs did not meet as in Chavez Park. Yet, given the reports’ regular references to “disturbances to the owls because of off-leash dogs,” these trend lines are necessarily correlated. We can intuit causation: More loose dogs → more disturbances → fewer owls.
It’s not only the owls that diminished in number, it was also the volunteer docents. And here causation was clear. As Weeden noted in her report for the 2016-2017 winter season, the high number of off-leash dogs with the “lack of dog leash enforcement has led to several docents leaving the program.” As a docent myself, trained in 2018, I can testify to the frustration and powerlessness that one feels when owners let their dogs off leash near and inside the owl preserve. In the first years of the docent program, the number of active docents stood at a dozen; it peaked at 21 in the winter of 2013-2014. But then the trend went downhill, and in the last year (2017-2018), only six volunteers joined the docent program. Frustration over inaction in the face of off-leash dogs contributed to the effective demise of the GGAS docent program in Chavez Park after 2018.
Although it’s the loose dogs that disturb and injure the owls, the dogs are obviously not to blame. They’re just being dogs. They’re incapable of moral or legal judgment. That responsibility lies with their owners. It’s undisputed that the majority of dog owners seen in the park are law abiding and don’t let their dogs run loose where they shouldn’t. It’s also beyond argument that there’s a minority of dog owners who do not and will not obey the law even when they’re aware of it. Experience with many encounters teaches that this type of owner knows the law perfectly well, but rejects it or feels above it. Merely educating them about what the law requires has no effect, and in some cases triggers hostile reactions.
The GGAS reports each year note that “Observers also often asked people to leash their dogs.” In some cases, owners became “belligerent” when asked politely to leash up. Many park visitors, myself included, have had this experience. Such owners not only reject the law, they sabotage the signage around the Off Leash Area so as to obliterate its boundaries. Matthai Chakko, the official spokesperson for the City of Berkeley, is quoted in Berkeleyside saying that “unknown dog owners are vandalizing and destroying” the boundary signs for the Off Leash Area. “People rip them out — even if they’re in cement,” Chakko wrote. “Some people don’t want any restrictions on where their dogs can and can’t go.” [Berkeleyside March 12 2019.] I have documented some instances of misplaced, missing, and destroyed signage and requested maintenance, without result. Owners who vandalize boundary signs are beyond education. Only enforcement will change this behavior.
How numerous are scofflaw dog owners? Claudia Kawczynska, one of the prime political movers behind the original establishment of the Off Leash Area in the park, told Berkeleyside, “It’s just getting worse. One or two [owners] can cause so much disruption… “ But the numbers reported in the annual GGAS Burrowing Owl Docent summaries point to much larger numbers. The number of passing off-leash dogs that docents reported as a percentage of all passing dogs stood at a low of 17 percent in 2011-2012 and again in 2015-2016, and a high of 37 percent in 2016-2017, for an average of 23 percent over the period. In other words, the number of dogs whose owners let them run off leash stood between one out of five and one out of four. The annual summaries did not consistently report the absolute numbers of dogs seen, but for the reported years, a low of 111 and a high of 175 loose dogs, with an average of 143, passed the docent observers. Some owners had more than one dog. Some owners passed repeatedly. Therefore, it’s not possible from these data to pin down the number of unique owners who allowed their dogs to run off leash next to or inside the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary. But it’s a substantial number, far more than “one or two.”
In late 2016, five years after the art fence around the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary went up, a dog killed a Burrowing Owl and carried its body in its maw several hundred yards before dropping it on the ground. That was not a raptor kill. When raptors kill a bird, they tear off the head and leave a bloody mess. I’ve discussed the different theories about the incident in this post. This kill bears the trademark of dogs trained to go fetch birds in the wild, namely retrievers. These beloved family dogs earned their name due to their facility in grabbing, snuffing out, and carrying birds in the service of hunters.
On January 26 2022, a park visitor told me of an incident involving the “Second Owl,” the highly visible and hugely popular bird in the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary.
A man came by with an off leash dog. The dog jumped through the fence and lunged for the sitting owl. The owl took flight and retreated toward the water. The owner said, “Bad dog!” Another park visitor, who witnessed the scene, corrected him. “No, bad owner!” After some time, when the dog and its owner had cleared off, the owl returned to its spot.
That owl disappeared the next day. It returned late on February 2, acting oddly, hiding instead of settling in the open as it usually did. It was filmed on Feb. 3 2022 dragging its left wing. That’s not a raptor injury; it’s consistent with a dog attack. The next day this owl could not be found. Efforts to find and rescue it proved futile. Without treatment for its injured wing, this owl was doomed. It probably climbed down into a nearby burrow and died. The other owl that had arrived the same day stayed two more weeks.
The 2021-2022 winter season was unique in that both of the owls that came to the park for the season stayed in the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary. In previous years, owls more frequently settled outside that area. During the 2018-2019 winter season, following the previous year when zero owls came, as many as twelve Burrowing Owls visited the park. Most of them stayed only hours or a couple of weeks. All but one perched on the northern shore, north of the paved walkway, close to the water, under sheltering fennel plants, many yards west of the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary. Two owls stayed for the season. One, which we called the North Owl, had a regular spot at the water’s edge on the north side. The other, the East Owl, stayed near the water on the east shore inside the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary, mostly but not always out of sight of the pathway and its traffic. I followed both birds daily in my blog on chavezpark.org and later detailed this season in the 24-minute documentary, The Owls Came Back. The North Owl was a target of repeated dog attacks. I filmed attacks on this bird on December 29 2018, on January 28, February 11, and February 22 and 23, 2019. See “More Dogs on Owl,” February 27 2019. The matter became so fraught that Berkeleyside did a long feature on the issue of owls and loose dogs in the park on March 12, 2019, after the two wintering owls had left. The article concluded, correctly in my opinion, that the majority of dog owners joined birders and other nature lovers in calling for better protection for the owls and more enforcement of the leash law.
On December 4 2019, a Burrowing Owl settled in the Nature Area, a 7-acre meadow on the north side of the park, where neither humans nor their pets are permitted, on penalty of a fine, according to posted signs. This owl, the only one to visit the park that winter, had to dodge numerous close approaches by loose dogs and their owners, spilling over from the Off Leash Area just uphill. I documented a few of these encounters in the Meadow Owl Movie. After that owl had left, the City put up a fence on part of the boundary between the Nature Area and the Off Leash Area. That fence helped substantially. But the design had two flaws. Builders left a gap in the run, and stopped the fence 200 feet short of the Nature Area boundary.
On November 10, 2020, a new owl arrived in the park and also settled in the Nature Area. One day after its arrival, it was driven underground by a roaming loose dog who had invaded the area through the gap in the new fence. This owl changed its position frequently throughout its stay, probably an indication of stress. On January 5, 2021, I photographed dogs and their owners trespassing in that area not far from the owl’s current position. No matter where the owl relocated, roaming dogs with or without their owners disturbed it. In mid-February 2021, it left the Nature Area and settled in the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary, where it tried different spots and eventually settled on a burrow near the water’s edge. But even there it was not safe. My owl blog for March 7 2021 records:
Saturday a week ago, all dog owners were on their best behavior and kept their pets on leash. The following day, two dog owners allowed their dogs to enter the owl sanctuary. One owner had his dog with him and tried frantically to recall him, which eventually worked. The other owner was nowhere in sight. The dog, a shepherd/huskie mix, flew over the fence and roamed through the area. Fortunately neither of those canines came within lunging range of the owl. Today, a big shepherd did just that. With half a dozen park visitors watching, it streaked across the fence, quickly saw the owl and went for it. The owl took wing and saved itself. The dog roamed on and exited the area. Its owner pretended it wasn’t his dog. (Disturbing a migratory bird like the Burrowing Owl is a federal and state offense.) Eventually the owl settled on a nearby rock, and after a while returned to its spot. The dog attack happened so fast that I could not film it.
Loose dogs impact Burrowing Owls through stress even absent bodily contact. The owls can readily distinguish dogs on leash from loose dogs. They show little reaction to dogs walking on heel with their owners. Dogs roaming off leash provoke alarm behavior: rising high, eyes wide, both feet on ground ready to fly. A quantitative index of an owl’s level of stress is the frequency of its head rotations. In early 2019, the East Owl, when it sat in its favorite spot on the rocks out of sight of the path, had a typical head RPM of 8 (eight head motions per minute). That rose to 16 when the owl perched higher up in a spot where it could be seen from the path. The North Owl, in plain view of the path and after repeated harassments by loose dogs, had an average head RPM of 30 and a peak of 46. See “Owl Diary Feb. 16-23,” Feb. 23 2019 and the Owls Came Back movie.
Bottom line: The main danger to Burrowing Owls in the park comes from owners who permit their dogs to run off leash. This is what the evidence shows. The harm to the owls lies not only in injury and death but in elevated levels of stress during their stay.
(3) Four-foot fences are the minimum standard for dog boundaries. The art fence in Chavez Park is substandard and an isolated case.
The point of fences around Burrowing Owl sites is not to pen the birds in but to keep loose dogs out. Although we may call them owl fences, they are in reality nothing but dog fences. The American Kennel Club calls for a minimum height of four feet — up to six feet — for dog boundary fences.
When an off-leash dog in 2008 dug up an owl’s burrow in the northeast corner of the park, and the owl fled, Golden Gate Audubon volunteers, with the cooperation of the city, rushed to erect a temporary fence around the area. This was an orange plastic fence of a type seen in construction sites everywhere. These fences are four feet high.
In January 2013, ace owl observer Mary Malec spotted a Burrowing Owl outside Chavez Park, on an embankment next to the Tom Bates soccer fields south of Gilman Street. She reported it to Della Dash, the GGAS coordinator of the docent program. According to the account in the Golden Gate Birder by Ilana DeBare, then GGAS Communications Director, Dash said, “I was pushing for a fence as fast as possible.” With the cooperation of then Berkeley Parks superintendent Sue Ferrera and the East Bay Regional Park District, which manages the area, the very next morning a work crew was “in the field, erecting an orange warning fence to keep people and pets away from the bird.” This fence was also the standard four feet high. [Source].
When a Burrowing Owl arrives at Pt. Isabel, park workers quickly surround it with the same kind of construction fence, four feet tall, to keep dogs away.
The new Tom Bates soccer fields were built on top of established Burrowing Owl winter settlements. By way of mitigation, required by law, the Park District built a new 8-acre Burrowing Owl area in the plateau at the base of the Albany Bulb. This is surrounded by a permanent wire fence, 51 1/2 inches (4 feet 3 1/2 inches) tall. In the winter of 2017-2018, when no Burrowing Owls showed up in Cesar Chavez Park, three of them settled inside that fence. Several migrants have returned there in subsequent years.
The boundary fence between the Off-Leash Area and the Nature Area that the City put up in March 2020 to protect owls in the Nature Area from roaming dogs is also four feet high.
How the substandard fence around the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary in the park came to be built remains largely unknown. In Chavez Park, the years 2009-2011 saw the creation of the Open Circle public art project in the northeast corner of the park. This had rather a romantic history. An affluent young Marin woman, Dorothy Weicker, was studying in Edinburgh in the 1970s. There she met and fell in love with a young Spanish sculptor, Antonio Lopez Garcia. She invested $100,000 in one of his sculptures, a nearly lifesize bronze figure of a man, a woman, and a child. Fast forward a quarter century. Weicker and the sculpture are back in Marin. Meanwhile Lopez Garcia has rocketed to artistic stardom. The Spanish government declares him a National Treasure. This means, among other things, that none of his artworks may reside permanently outside of Spain. A Spanish oil company paid Weicker $1 million for the work and repatriated it. Weicker vowed to use the money to advance the arts in the Bay Area. She offered $100,000 to the City of Berkeley for a public art project. The City formed a committee of seven members to concretize the plan: two from Weicker’s foundation, two members of the City’s Civic Arts Commission, one from the City’s Waterfront Commission, one member of the public who represented park users, and one from the Audubon Society. This committee hired the artists, approved the design, and doled out the funds.
The deliberations of this committee have not been published. It’s likely that the Audubon Society representative, Della Dash, had some influence on the issue of protecting the Burrowing Owls, which had long used this area as a winter refuge. Without Dash, no fence might have been built at all. But on the fence design, the lone Audubon representative seems to have been outvoted, probably by Weicker and her money. Dash herself was an enthusiastic partisan of four foot high construction fences in the 2008 incident where a dog dug up an owl burrow, and later in the January 2013 incident with the owl next to the soccer fields, both discussed above. Yet the fence that was put up at the end of the committee’s deliberations in 2011 was substantially inferior in height and density. It measures barely 32 inches at peak and has a gap of 7 to 9 inches between the top two cables. At the northern and southern gates, the top cable is just 26 inches off the ground. See “Fixing the Owl Fence” for pictures and details.
There is no other instance in the Bay Area, and very probably anywhere in the world, where a fence of these dimensions has been installed to protect a wildlife preserve from off-leash dogs. No person knowledgeable about Burrowing Owls or about dogs advocates such a fence. Every other fence in a comparable setting is at least four feet high. The fence in Chavez Park is an anomaly, a one-off, an outlier, a miscarriage, an isolated freakish mistake.
It’s understandable why the artists and the Arts Commission remain invested in the fence. The artists love it because it’s their art. The Arts Commissioners are volunteers. Their lack of action for a decade indicates no concern about birds or dogs. And the wannabe Art Deco fence, with its bent three-part posts crowned by rounded-off dowels, is art. lt’s not great art, but what do you want for $100,000?
(4) The Audubon Society has an opportunity to take the lead to replace the art fence with a new fence that offers better security for the owls and runs along a more public-minded route.
The puzzle is why the Golden Gate Audubon Society has not yet taken the lead in amending this mistake and demanding a more adequate fence design. Part of the answer appears to lie in lack of attention. For at least five years, the fence was in poor repair. In several years, the opening and closing of the gates was forgotten or out of all synch with the Burrowing Owl calendar. Groundskeeping within the fenced area was sometimes either forgotten or excessive. Signage, when posted at all, contained inaccurate numbers and embarrassing admonitions not to point at the owls as this would alert raptors, as if hawks’ eyes were dimmer than humans’. I could write another chapter about the maintenance of this fence.
The art fence suffers not only from its poor design, but also from its route. On the southern end, the fence encloses the Open Circle viewpoint and seating area, commonly known as the Spiral. When the gates are closed during the winter months, the public cannot enter this popular destination. Keeping the public out of the Open Circle viewpoint during owl wintering season may have seemed appropriate when the fence was built and owls were plentiful, but no owls have settled in or close to this spot for many years now. If every spot in the park where an owl once perched had to be fenced off half the year, the whole north section of the park would have to be fenced. The public suffers exclusion from the Spiral half the year for no good purpose. Resentment at this blockage is so widespread that it’s almost routine now for the closed south gate to be vandalized.
Blockage of the Open Circle viewpoint hurts not only the general public, it hurts birders specifically and Burrowing Owl observers specially.
The Open Circle viewpoint lies on a promontory that projects offshore. This is the best birding hotspot on the east side of the park, if not the entire park. At low tide, the whole expanse of the mudflats in the North Basin lies spread out like a carpet for observers here. It’s a bird photographer’s Mecca. But it is closed off and access is denied precisely during the season when the largest number and greatest variety of species are present. What kind of birder organization would lock birders out of the best bird hotspot during peak bird season?
Closing off the Open Circle Viewpoint in the winter months handcuffs Burrowing Owl observers. On December 6 2018, I decided to ignore the fence and check for owls on the rip-rap east of the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary. I stepped over the fence and set up my camera in the forbidden Open Circle Viewpoint. Facing north, I was thrilled to spot a Burrowing Owl in the rip-rap about 100 yards away. See post. No one knows how long that owl had been there before I spotted it. Three years later, I spotted another owl in the same area. See post. It also would have gone unnoticed if I had respected the closure of the Open Circle Viewpoint. Burrowing Owl docents who obeyed the fence closure were blindfolded and missed half the owls in the park. A Burrowing Owl docent program that honors the current route of the art fence has no scientific credibility.
Park visitors who love the Burrowing Owls tend to have a low opinion of the art fence around the owl area. People cannot understand why these adorable and very vulnerable birds don’t have a serious fence to protect them. Nearly 400 people in the past two weeks have signed a petition addressed to the City requesting a better fence.
On the whole, park visitors blame the City. The City does not protect the owls, does not value the owls, doesn’t care what happens to the owls, and so forth. That’s what people say. Yet responsible park administrators for the City readily acknowledge that the fence is a poor design, that it imperils the owls, that it should be replaced and rerouted. But, they say, we defer on this issue to the Arts Commission and to the Audubon Society.
As the City’s fingerpointing on the fence issue becomes more widely known, as it should and will be, the onus of poor owl stewardship will fall increasingly on Audubon. Audubon has a big reservoir of prestige and good will, but it is not invulnerable. Relying on 100 years of good deeds in the past to cover up glaring mistakes in the present won’t work. Audubon is on trial in public opinion. It clings to the name of a notorious racist and slave trader who shot thousands of birds in order to paint some. The national organization’s biggest chapter, Seattle, in recent days has dropped “Audubon.” Here in supposedly progressive Berkeley, the local chapter still embraces the odious name. GGAS does not need the public to learn that the group also remains stuck in its position of 2011 on the owl fence, when the circumstances have so obviously changed, the mistake is so clear, and the harm to the owls and to the public is so persistent.
Here is an opportunity to take leadership. The Chavez Park Conservancy would be happy to support the Audubon Society on an initiative to replace the art fence with one that offers better security for the owls and runs on a more public-minded and birder-minded route. I hope that as the new leader of this chapter you will seize the day to move forward toward a solution to the persistent migraine headache of off-leash dogs and this off-standard fence. There’s no time to waste. The owls, if they come, may be here very soon.