A rare burrowing owl spotted at Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley

A burrowing owl spent some time perched on a rock at Cesar Chavez Park on Oct. 9. The last time such a bird was seen in the park was in March 2017. Photo: Martin Nicolaus

The bird stood on one foot on a rock at the edge of the water. It faced north, but frequently rotated its head in both directions, showing its eyes in various states of alertness — closed, squinting and wide open. It would occasionally and suddenly swivel its head 180 degrees.

Had the bird chosen a perch two feet east or west, it would have been hidden by vegetation, and human eyes would probably not have seen it.

A ground squirrel watched the bird carefully from a higher rock a few feet away. This particular bird — a burrowing owl — is too small to attack ground squirrels, but it is big and scary enough to evict ground squirrels from their burrows, and take them over as their seasonal homes for the winter, if it intends to stay. The owl first spotted around 8:45 a.m. Tuesday morning rested on a rock and showed no interest in a burrow, however.

The burrowing owl population has been slowly declining in California, and particularly in the Bay Area, likely due to the impact of development. The owls that arrive here in October, when they arrive, probably come from Idaho and points north, where they breed in the summertime. They come here to escape the frigid northern winters. If they stay, they’ll rest up and build their strength and then migrate back north around March.


The owl stood on a rock at the edge of the water. Photo: Martin Nicolaus

Burrowing owls used to be seen fairly commonly at Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park. But no owls showed up during the winter of 2017-2018, the first time in memory they have been absent. People were worried.

The arrival of the owl this week is great news for the many locals who love them and are concerned about them.

Parks Department workers had spent many hours mowing,  chopping fennel and whacking weeds to get the fenced area in the northeast corner of the park into the kind of shape that these birds prefer. However, this bird ignored all that and chose a perch outside the area.

The bird stood on one foot and never took a step. It must have seen me, standing about ten yards away at the edge of the paved pathway, but it paid no attention. Runners crunched by on the gravel, and the bird barely noticed them.

It did turn and look with eyes wide open when a cargo bicycle passed, and again when a woman with a large dog on a leash walked by. The owl’s head  instantly pivoted upward when other birds flew overhead. When a group of six women stopped at my invitation to look at the bird, it paid no attention. They were quiet and made no sudden movements.

A ground squirrel watched the burrowing owl from a higher rock a few feet away on the morning of Oct. 9. Photo: Martin Nicolaus

After an  hour during which the bird did not take a step, I left.  The bird remained in place as I slowly walked away. I checked the rocks for quite a distance both east and west, and saw no other owls.

It remains to be seen whether this owl is just resting on its way elsewhere, or whether it intends to take up residence here for the winter. The last time an owl was seen in the park was March 17, 2017. Four months earlier, one owl was killed and carried off, almost certainly by a dog. Three owls visited the Albany Plateau during the 2017-2018 winter season, but none came to Cesar Chavez Park.


The video below captures the bird as it stood on the rock. The video is over 18 minutes long and the owl’s only movement is the quick swiveling of its head. If you watch the first minute, you’ve basically seen the whole thing. But the birds are so rare and so beloved that there are people who will watch the whole sequence and still find it too short.

This story was first published on ChavezPark.org, a blog hosted by Martin Nicolaus that chronicles activities at, and advocates for improvements to, Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park.