Berkeley's Burrowing Owls in Decline; Public Art Commission to the Rescue?

My job covering outdoors and environmental news in the East Bay doesn't exactly take me to exotic locales, but it does give me an excuse to get outside and explore some of our regional and city parks. I was already familiar with the owl habitat at Berkeley's Cesar Chavez Park, near the Berkeley Marina, when I learned about this new public art installation that would serve humans, dogs, and owls alike. So I took another trip out there to meet the artists and designers, Jeff Reed and Jennifer Madden, and see their work in progress. It was a windy day, like all days at the Marina, but the sun was shining, Jeff and Jennifer were working hard, and the burrowing owls whose habitat they were protecting were somewhere hundreds of miles away, completely unaware of all the attention they were garnering on a rocky two-acre plot along the bay in Berkeley. Here's the full story.

"An Art Project for the Birds"
By Nate Seltenrich
Compromise helps a public art installation find its way onto burrowing owl habitat in Berkeley's Cesar Chavez Park.
How many burrowing owls does it take to shape a $100,000 public art project? At Berkeley's Cesar Chavez Park, just two. That's how many of the migratory birds vacationed at the park last winter, down from four the year before and as many as fifteen a decade ago. Burrowing owls' numbers are in decline throughout the country, causing them to be listed as a species of special concern in most of the Western United States. So when a public art project was inadvertently commissioned for the very spot the owls set up shop every October through March, the project came to be as much about protecting the owls as serving the public.

The incredible thing is that everyone involved — including local conservationists; a bevy of public agencies; the Open Circle Foundation, who provided the funding; and the artists themselves — is in full support of the compromise.

"We've come to a general agreement that what we're doing now on the site is going to be protective and supportive and not invasive, and when the owls are not present, it will provide a pleasant public amenity," said David Snippen, the former chair of Berkeley's Civic Arts Commission, who was instrumental in achieving approval for the installation. "It works both ways. Year-round, it'll work."

This past spring, Snippen spent nearly six weeks passing the project through ten separate regional, state, and federal agencies, including the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the US Army Corps of Engineers, before construction could begin.

The winning design, comprised of a series of textured and sandstone-colored concrete walls that mimic the geology of the East Bay hills behind them, serves as both art and barrier. In combination with steel cables and a series of four gates, the two-and-a-half-foot walls — which will be back-filled with dirt to resemble natural berms that slope down to meet the existing grade — will prevent dogs from entering the owls' habitat during the winter months. In recent years, off-leash dogs have posed the greatest threat to the owls' well-being during their stay in Berkeley, frightening them by traipsing through their territory and in some cases actually hunting them. During summer, when the owls are absent, the four gates will be open to humans and dogs alike.

Husband-and-wife team Jeff Reed and Jennifer Madden of Albany-based Reed Madden Designs submitted the proposal and were selected from among 32 applicants. They've been working upward of fifty hours a week since mid-June on the concrete walls, which should be complete by the time the owls arrive in October. However, construction of the public viewing portion of the installation, including two seating areas, will have to wait until after the owls leave again in April.

Reed shares Snippen's excitement about the installation's tactful balancing of priorities. "The reason we really liked this project initially was because the funder's message is to bring together nature, community, and the arts," he said. "I think that's what we've started to outline." The team's design is intended to be artfully unobtrusive yet useful from the dog and human side, and more or less invisible from the owl side. "That will be sign of success for us, if we're able to create something that really looks like it belongs," said Reed.

Combined, the 700 linear feet of walls will enclose a strip of land approximately two acres in area between the coast and one of the park's main concrete walkways. The owls seem to favor the eastern-facing shoreline because it's sheltered from the wind and features some of their favorite habitat — rocky outcroppings amidst numerous ground-squirrel tunnels that make for ideal burrows.

For the past three winters, the habitat has been protected by unsightly orange fencing. Della Dash, a volunteer with the Golden Gate Audubon Society, helped put it up. "I could see that the birds were just so vulnerable, with dogs and people walking by and riding bikes," she said. Dash also initiated a docent training program for Cesar Chavez Park's owls. Not only do docents, 22 of whom were trained last year, keep close tabs on the birds, but they also interact with members of the public as they pass by the area on their morning jogs, family bike rides, and dog walks.

Once it was discovered that owls shared the space for which the art project was commissioned, Dash was granted a spot on the selection committee — and a rare authority to speak directly for the owls. "We decided this was a fabulous opportunity for us to collaborate," explained Dash. "They basically said, 'Well, tell us what the owls need, and we will work the art installation around that.' The committee unanimously selected the best and most unobtrusive project for that area."

"Of course, we would've preferred that they move it to another site," she continued, "but they said that wasn't a possibility."