Antioch Developer Evicts Burrowing Owls

December 21, 2009

Naturalists Scott and Heather Artis of Antioch have adopted a local community of burrowing owls as their own stewardship project and were looking forward to this year’s nesting season, but in November 2009 the California Department of Fish & Game handed the owls an eviction notice. Before nesting season begins in February 2010, the owls will be “passively relocated” or excluded from their nests and forced to move elsewhere. (Check out this short video Scott made to protest the eviction.)

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Scott Artis and his wife Heather have been watching, and watching out for, a group of burrowing owls that started nesting in the bare ground of an unfinished housing development in Antioch. Photo courtesy Scott Artis.

The owls currently live in a 25-acre, partially-completed housing development called Blue Ridge, where Scott and Heather frequently walk in the evenings. In 2008 they noticed the owls moving in, along with California ground squirrels, jackrabbits, and quail. Scott and Heather have also seen kestrels, coyotes, great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, white-tailed kites, and turkey vultures in or over the abandoned subdivision.

The Artis’ enjoyed and observed the owls’ behavior and recorded their numbers and nesting habits. What began as an interest became a passion. “We’ve taken them under our wings, so to speak,” says Scott. “In 2009 there were 15 owls in the neighborhood; 11 of those in the development. Several nestlings were successfully reared. Four pairs have wintered over.”

Across the state, burrowing owls are quickly diminishing in numbers. According to the Institute for Bird Populations at Point Reyes, there has been a 50 percent decline in burrowing owl population in the Bay Area in the last 10 to 15 years. They are a Species of Special Concern in California, a pre-listing category under the California Endangered Species Act. Their status protects them from disturbance during nesting season or killing at any time, but does not guarantee them a home. “This is standard,” says Professor Lynne Trulio of San Jose State University. “Outside of breeding season, owls can be removed.”

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The Artises have recorded 11 different owls living on the property. Burrowing owls, a species of special concern in California, have been especially hard hit by suburban sprawl into grasslands all over the state.

The Artis’ stewardship has taken many forms. Scott personally repairs and makes modification to gates to prevent people from off-roading in the area, he writes about owls on his website journowl.com, and he has repeatedly complained to city officials when human activity including graffiti, illegal dumping, an abandoned golden retriever, , drug dealing, fireworks, and off-roading seriously threatened the owls during nesting season. Scott says Antioch Police Chief Jim Hyde has been very responsive. A fence was replaced, and the property cleaned up. So, thanks to Scott’s efforts, all was well with the owls for awhile.

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The owls nest in abandoned ground squirrel burrows. Photo courtesy Scott Artis.

But now developer Kiper Homes wants to begin building again in the spring, and company officials plan to remove the owls first. The state Department of Fish and Game has given Kiper written notice to proceed. Before February, one-way doors will be installed in occupied burrows, allowing the owls to leave, but not return, to their nests. Once the owls are gone, the nests will be destroyed. Ground squirrels, who built the nests the owls occupied, will then be fumigated to prevent future burrowing, which would invite the owls back in. Scott guesses the owls will move to property behind the Blue Ridge tract, but that land is itself slated for future development.

“Burrowing owls like to live in the same places humans like to live,” says Trulio. This makes them especially vulnerable to human expansion into their neighborhoods. This owl community will be homeless just as nesting season is beginning. What will their future hold? Stay tuned.

About the Author

Donna Whitmarsh is a Bay Nature volunteer.

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