Barn Owls in our urban Bay Area January 20, 2013

Posted by GGAS in Birding

By Lisa Owens Viani

My owl obsession began when I moved to Berkeley in 2003. One evening while on an evening walk with a friend, she pointed out what she thought was the sound of someone breathing with the help of a respirator in a house on Edwards Street. That didn’t seem quite right — I instantly thought “bird” — but I wasn’t expecting to hear owls in such an urban spot.

I called a birder friend who suggested the possibility of a Barn Owl. Sure enough, upon closer inspection, we confirmed that the sound was coming from a Canary Island palm tree behind the house with the “respirator.” Then we spotted Barn Owls flying in and out of the tree, pearl white in the dark sky, backlit by the moon, making trip after trip to feed their young.

Barn Owl / Photo by Ashok Khosla - www.seeingbirds.com

But not everyone was as enamored with the owls — or their sounds — as I was, and the tree was cut down. I decided to found Keep Barn Owls in Berkeley, with the help of naturalist Joe Eaton and some other owl fans, to create more awareness about the incredible natural pest control services of these owls: One family can consume 600 mice in 10 weeks.

I connected with The Hungry Owl Project in Marin and local owl experts like Golden Gate Audubon field trip leader Dave Quady, and began to get a grasp on the number of Barn Owls this city supports. I learned of about a dozen pairs nesting in Berkeley alone that year, most in Canary Island palm trees, many of which stand next to Victorians and thus were probably planted in the early 1900s. (I also learned about nests in El Cerrito, Albany, and Richmond, again most of them in Canary Island palms.)

In what may be the least controversial Berkeley city council resolution ever passed, we got the Barn Owl designated as the city’s official bird.

Berkeley’s Barn Owls have been here a long time. In a 1927 account in The Condor, UC Berkeley zoologist E. Raymond Hall wrote about the Barn Owls he discovered roosting in the tower of the First Presbyterian Church at Dana and Channing Way. Hall gained entrance to the tower and dissected the owls’ pellets. The most common prey remains were California meadow mice, pocket gophers, white-footed mice, and house mice. One pellet contained a Jerusalem cricket! Hall also wrote about hearing “as many as 17 barn owls” fly over his home on Panoramic Way one summer evening.

Canary Island Date Palm / Photo by Mike Gray

Today Berkeley’s open fields and barns are gone and the church steeples and bell towers screened off. But the Barn Owls have adapted. This summer, during a nighttime walk, I discovered a Barn Owl family in a palm tree on the Berkeley Unified School District property at Bonar and Addison. I first heard the fledglings in mid-June, although they certainly may have been calling before I heard them; by the end of July they had dispersed. This time their chosen palm tree was a Washingtonia filifera—much taller and skinnier than the stouter Canary Island palm. Washingtonias look like they are wearing long hula skirts, with dead thatch hanging down around their trunks.

Washingtonia palm / Photo by Jim Harper from Wikipedia

I have a new appreciation for this somewhat scraggly looking tree now that I know Barn Owls can use them. Of course, the entire time I was watching the young being fed by their parents, learning to branch, and then fly, my heart was in my mouth, worried that they might eat poisoned rats: The School District had placed poison bait boxes less than 200 feet away from the owls. Thankfully the District agreed to remove the boxes.

Barn Owl / Photo by Bilal al-Shahwany, www.flickr.com/photos/54507110@N00/

If you love owls, please don’t use rat poison. Imagine a Barn Owl in every palm tree in Berkeley. It might be a little loud for a few months each summer, but a much less environmentally-damaging way to control rodents.

Barn Owl

  • Latin name: Tyto alba
  • Type of habitat: Like hunting in open fields and meadows but have adapted to cities. Great-horned Owls will prey on Barn Owls.
  • Season: Can be seen year-round in the Bay Area, more commonly in spring/summer — usually at night.
  • Conservation status: Common.
  • More info: See the Barn Owl section of AllAboutBirds. org, by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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Lisa Owens Viani is Communications Manager for the Coral Reef Alliance and Co-founder of Raptors Are The Solution. She was formerly Development Director at GGAS.

 

Tags: Barn Owl, Bay Area birds, Berkeley, Berkeley wildlife, Lisa Owens Viani.

Comments

  1. Ann E. Feldman
    January 21st, 2013 at 12:58 PM

    Lisa, thank you SO much for sending this! I love Barn Owls and they do not exist in NYC so the only ones I have ever seen “in person” have been educational birds. I watch the Starr Reserve Webcam all the time, however. One more reason to Stop The Poison!
    Ann

  2. Verne Nelson
    January 21st, 2013 at 1:11 PM

    I was wondering about the “sounds” they make. Are they whoots given at night time and are they made from near or in the nest. Could they be used to track down whether there is a nest in a candidate palm?

    Thanks for the blog…very interesting.

  3. Anne Sands
    January 21st, 2013 at 4:09 PM

    Very nice blog, Lisa! Accurate, informative, entertaining and compelling. Why not send it to some newspapers and magazines ?

    BTW our owl box is wending its way to you this week sometime.

    Happy Owling,

    Anne

  4. January 21st, 2013 at 7:08 PM

    Thanks, everyone. Verne, the adults make a variety of sounds (not really a “hoot” though; that’s more of a great-horned); more of a RASP. And the young do beg for food very rhythmically and regularly with kind of a hissing sound. And yes, they vocalize at night. One way to see if there are owls in your tree is to look at the base for owl pellets and tiny rodent skeletons ;-) (Look carefully; sometimes maintenance people sweep them up…) (And there *are* barn owls in Alameda!)

    Lisa

  5. Sharon J
    January 22nd, 2013 at 6:00 PM

    Thanks, I enjoyed this article. I grew familiar with the “SCRREEEeeeek” from watching them swoop around Cesar Chavez park in the evenings. Thought I was imagining things hearing it again near my apartment, but eventually found out there’s a pair nesting in a palm (looks like your pictures of the Canary Island palms, though I never knew the name before) just blocks away, on Telegraph Ave.

    It’s a treat knowing they are about. I also saw a Great Horned Owl (perhaps one of the Claremont Canyon clan?) sitting on a lamppost at a tennis court. Add in the Black Crowned Night Herons in the schoolyards, and evening walks are rarely boring!

  6. January 23rd, 2013 at 5:43 PM

    We have a pair around Channing/Roosevelt and I like hearing that “scrreeet” sound at night. The vocalizing doesn’t bother me, at all (the sound of speeding cars on residential streets is another matter, however…) I hope that we can preserve their preferred trees. Any way the churches with their currently blocked off steeples could be persuaded to install owl boxes?

  7. Lisa Owens Viani
    January 24th, 2013 at 8:58 AM

    Yes!!! That is exactly what I’ve always wanted to do, have churches re-open their steeples to the owls.
    Lisa

  8. Elizabeth Yu
    January 24th, 2013 at 7:01 PM

    Hello Lisa, I would love to see the barn owls that are here in Alameda! Where can I find them?

  9. January 25th, 2013 at 9:49 AM

    Thanks, Lisa, for the article on Barn Owls. We have one across the street in a canary palm tree. I was surprised to learn that this is the preferred nesting tree.

  10. Irene Barnard
    January 25th, 2013 at 9:27 PM

    Great blog, Lisa! I enjoyed how you weave urban history with natural history, and advocacy as well, all into one thread. Keep up the good work!

  11. January 26th, 2013 at 9:53 AM

    Elizabeth and Alameda folks– check your palm trees! (well, under them, mostly ;-) They’ve been seen in Alameda, but I can’t point you to an exact tree. Sometimes maintenance people sweep away the pellets… but if you look closely….

  12. Sharon Ryals Tamm
    February 2nd, 2013 at 10:55 PM

    Yay! So glad to find someone else excited about barn owls in Berkeley. Too bad they don’t seem to be eating rats. Do you think there’s a call for putting up some owl nesting boxes near parks perhaps?

  13. February 3rd, 2013 at 7:37 PM

    The barn owls are definitely eating rats, mice, and gophers. Owl boxes o.k. near parks as long as rat poison not being used anywhere in the vicinity!