The Meadow Owl Movie

The Burrowing Owl that settled in the meadow of the nature area on the north side of the park in December 2019 migrated north a month ago. This six-minute movie looks back at its arrival and its 100-day residence.

In mid-December, an owl was also sighted for a few days just inside the fenced area that’s intended as a Burrowing Owl Sanctuary in the northeast corner of the park. Whether that was the same owl as the one in the meadow remains an open question.

As I stood in the park day after day with my camera on the Meadow Owl, many people asked me why the owl settled in that spot instead of in the fenced area. Of course, I don’t know. It may be that the owl regarded the decorative fence as meaningless and judged the area too small. In fact, the Art-Deco fence has not stopped invasions by off-leash dogs. I have long advocated reinforcing that fence to make the promise of sanctuary more of a reality.

Park visitors who saw the owls during the winter of 2018-2019 were curious why the owl settled in the meadow south of the paved trail instead of on the water’s edge north of the trail, as they did last year. Not many were aware of the vandalism that unknown hands committed in October 2019, destroying the owl habitat along the water’s edge. The owls depended on the tall vegetation to shelter them from hawks and dogs. Without that cover, an owl would have had to be suicidal to spend time there. In fact, no one spotted an owl in that devastated area even for a minute during the six-month wintering season.

One park visitor, seeing the destroyed habitat, tried to rationalize the vandalism by pointing to the opinion that the owls prefer flat, unobstructed terrain. Such language is included in the information sign posted next to the fenced area. Forgotten is the fact that this applies to the owls’ summertime breeding habitat, where the birds have stealthy stalking predators to worry about and rambunctious chicks to keep an eye on. There is no authority for the view that the owls want the same habitat during their wintering season. No stealthy stalkers lurk on the north side of the park, and the owls don’t breed here and they have no chicks. What they need is cover to hide from flying raptors overhead, and from loose dogs on the ground. Published expert authority is virtually absent on the owls’ wintering habitat. This past winter we wrote one sentence in a chapter on that topic: Wintering owls avoid exposed habitat where they cannot hide.

Burrowing Owls are said to display “site fidelity,” meaning that they return to the same exact spot year after year. This quality also refers to their breeding behavior, not to the winter. Neither of the owls that spent the winter season here during 2018-2019 returned to the same site. Of course, we don’t know why. Things can happen to owls. But both of these owls, especially the North Owl, put up with a lot of stress from irresponsible dog owners, who enabled their animals to harass the bird on an almost daily basis. Take a look at the last portion of The Owls Came Back movie. It’s not the dogs’ fault; they’re just being dogs, carnivore hunters with a feral core and a veneer of civilization. It’s their owners that need to be leashed.

The partition fence between the dog park and the nature area on the north side of the park went up a few days after the Meadow Owl had departed. Although it’s about 200 feet too short and has a glaring gap, the fence has reduced, although not stopped, people and dogs trespassing into the protected area. All who appreciate nature will be grateful that this fence went up, and thanks are due to Waterfront Manager Alexandra Endress and City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley for authorizing the contract that built it. Of course, that came too late for the Meadow Owl. We can have no idea what it took away from its 100+ days here and what it will report to its family and friends up in its breeding grounds.

The decisions that birds make are out of our control. But just as we tailor the reception we give human guests in our homes, we have choices about how we host migrating birds. Our options are all the more crucial for birds whose lifestyles make them especially vulnerable, such as the Burrowing Owls. The park environment that we create reflects our values. If we see the park primarily as an infinite convenience for our dogs — playground, hunting preserve, digging sandbox, toilet — then wildlife doesn’t matter to us, except as game. But if we value nature in all its broad diversity, then we will set and enforce boundaries for unleashed canines, and we will nurture, enable, and respect the park as a place where wildlife can prosper and thrive. Parks make life better, as the slogan goes; and wildlife, especially bird life, makes parks better.

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)

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