We’re just in from the last dog-walk of the night. The typical August overcast is here, a low cloud cover that reflects the lights of the city and creates an un-dark condition, a kind of infernal twilight that persists from sundown to sunup. A very unromantic, blatting horn–maybe a train, maybe a very annoying truck–sounds in the night. Overall I find the scene less than enchanting. I probably need to get to bed.
The date palm a couple blocks away, the one where our neighborhood barn owls have been nesting, is quiet. The birds have moved out, almost. We got up early this morning to try to see the birds before full daylight. We have been hearing the birds in the area after dark, and we thought maybe we’d see them fly back to their nesting tree before the sun was up. In the non-rosy-fingered dawn–it was more like a wooly gray-blanket dawn–we heard what sounded like one bird in the palm. Then, at about 6 o’clock, two owls flew out of the tree and headed northwest, in the general direction of the bay. No other sound came from the tree, and there was no sign of the other three or four birds we figured were there as recently as a couple weeks ago.
We went back for this evening’s overcast sunset. Again, silence from the tree. But as it got dark, first one and then a second barn owl flew into the palm–from the northwest, the same direction we’d seen them go this morning. After a few minutes, one of the pair flew out into the dusk to hunt. We heard one or two other barn owls in the neighborhood, but didn’t make another sighting. We’ll look again tomorrow.
I’ve started to anticipate the evening not too long in the future when the barn owls that have nested a couple blocks away will have emancipated their young and flown on to find fresh rodent pickings. But for now, they’re still here: a nesting pair, by the best guess of close observers, and four young that appear to have started to go out and join the rat quest that starts just after sundown every evening.
Besides those half-dozen birds, dozens of humans have been showing up, sometimes all at once, to listen to the owls screeching or watch the birds wing out of their palm tree into the neighborhood. Tonight when I was out on the street, a woman pulled up in a diesel Mercedes (from the smell of it, an environmentally correct one, burning biofuel). She got out, walked over, and said, “Do you know what it is?” Before I could say anything, she said, “Two owls and their four puppies.” She then got back in the car and drove away.
I’ve heard there’s a biologist from UC-Berkeley who lives in the neighborhood and has been visiting the site to collect owl pellets. (You know–the regurgitated carcasses of their most recent meals.) Some parents are bringing their young kids. Some adults have brought flashlights or even heavier-duty lighting equipment to illuminate the owls and their tree. The owl’s human foster parents–the family in whose yard the owl palm stands–has taken to posting signs asking people not to disturb the birds during their early evening hunting time. So far, no one has tried to sing to the owls, play the bagpipes for them, lectured them on the virtues of the vegan diet, or used their presence as an excuse for on-street slam poetry.
There’s a story there, for sure. What I can’t satisfactorily put into words yet, though, even as I listen to and watch the birds, is why their appearance is so fascinating to me and the others who come.
Short barn owl clip:
Longer, narrated barn owl sound:
As earlier disclosed in this space, some barn owls have moved into the neighborhood. We've been hearing them during our late night walk almost every night for the last month or so. A few nights ago, I remembered an episode while visiting my friend Randy when he lived just outside Twin Falls, Idaho. He had a house down in a little canyon, and some barn owls roosted in the clefts of a sheer face right along the road. He mentioned that they'd fly out around sunset, and one evening we walked up to watch. I think we saw two or three owls on the cliff face, apparently asleep. After sunset they all seemed to wake together and, as if on a signal, they flew out into the dusk.
We went up to the date palm where the local barn owls are nesting, also just after sunset. After watching for 10 minutes at most, we saw a pair of owls emerge from the fronds and wing off to the west; a minute or so later, a second pair came out and flew east. Until dark, we could see them flying all over the neighborhood. It made us wonder how many times they've been around and we've failed to see them.
We also met the woman above whose home the owl palm stands. She's become a student of the birds. She thinks they are an adult pair and two or three young. She had a great story about their arrival: On night one they began clearing dead palm fronds from a section of the tree; on night two, they "cleaned house," throwing down small-animal skeleton, bits of old nests, and other debris they found in their intended perch. She said she loves having the birds there, though they've gotten pretty messy what with discarded owl pellets and daily excreta.
Last weekend, I tried to record some of the sound we've been hearing. I have no idea how it will come out, but I've embedded a couple clips above. The first is short (30-some seconds) and includes what I thought was a warning or alarm from one of the birds. The second is longer (11 minutes) and includes me narrating the "action." Don't know how they'll sound via Typepad — in an earlier experiment the sound was awfully low.
A week or two ago, I was talking to a couple neighbors about rats. They didn’t get the memo about how genteel Berkeley has become. Just about everyone here encounters them in compost bins or scurrying across backyard fences from one tangle of ivy to another. The guy next door said he thought it would be great if we had owls to take care of the rodents and had considered putting up a nesting box in his yard to attract one. We have seen owls here before, notably a great horned owl that showed up in a neighbors backyard cedar at dusk one day and seemed to be hunting our little cat. I wondered how easy it would be to attract owls, though (the evidence from my reading is mixed: they prefer a rural setting, naturally, but seem have adapted somewhat to the steamroller ways of Homo americanus.)
The other night, walking the dog a couple blocks from home in our un-rural neighborhood, we heard a sound nearby: a loud, pulsing creak. Two, three, four times, like a rusty gate opening and closing. It crossed my mind that it was an owl drawn to our rodent smorgasbord After a block, we heard the sound again, very close by. Then some sort of bird flew up off a telephone line just ahead of us, down the sloping street, then settled again. Close up, the sound had changed from a creak to a short, keening scream, a little unnerving in the dark. I had a bright LED headlight with me, and shone it on the bird from just across the street: a barn owl. So, maybe they’re moving into the area already. Can we encourage them to stay? Here’s one outfit (in Marin County) that seems to say yes.
An immature sharp-shinned hawk (or possibly an immature Cooper’s hawk; the bird references I’ve used, Petersen and Sibley, say they’re sometimes impossible to tell apart) in front of the neighbor’s house this morning. These hawks hunt other birds, but this one might have been angling for a squirrel meal; when we (the dog and I) surprised the bird, which was on the neighbor’s front fence, a squirrel scurried away from the same area.
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A constant feature of Berkeley life since I arrived here in the mid-’70s: lost pet posters (and all sorts of other fliers) on our local telephone poles. This one’s a little eye-catching. "Lost Congo African Grey Parrot." So we’ve got lost birds here pretty often, too. In fact, there’s a flock of feral parrots that sometimes makes an appearance in these parts. Lots of loud squawking and flapping and ganglike avian activity when they’re around. What interested me about this poster is what was going on when he vanished last Friday: "When last seen, Hannibal [editor’s note: the bird’s name] was being attacked by a hawk."
Yes, there are some little falcon-like hawks around town that dine on some of less fierce feathered types. One evening when my brother John was out here, we were walking up the street and saw feathers floating to the ground. Atop a telephone poll, a Cooper’s hawk was pulling apart a morning dove it had just caught for dinner. Urban wildlife. You could probably pitch it as a subject for a community-access TV program.