Mountain View Voice

Opinion - September 9, 2011

Ambitious plans to save the owls

It is heartening to see support growing for the dwindling population of burrowing owls at Shoreline Park.

Despite extraordinary efforts by the city and the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, a handful of remaining birds at Shoreline are just hanging on. There is some cause for hope after biologists determined that three pairs of owls hatched 10 chicks this year. This is good news, although far fewer than the 22 chicks hatched in 2003. The owls face numerous challenges to survive at Shoreline, including loss of habitat and even an ongoing battle with photographers and hikers who get too close to their nests. Defending against the intruders can cause the birds to jump and fly into view of the hawks who prey on them.

But luckily the owls have many friends who are working on their behalf, including Phil Higgins, a city biologist who manages the owls' habitat at Shoreline. He lets visitors know if they are closer than the 250-foot buffer to make the owls comfortable. Harassing or killing an owl is a serious crime that can carry a fine of up to $15,000 and up to six months in jail.

Besides Higgins, the Audubon Society has continued its strong support of maintaining the burrowing owls, which have vanished from most of the county except for Shoreline Park, Moffett Field and Alviso. There are numerous projects underway to help the owls, including a city plan to create more habitat around the golf course and perhaps beginning a supplemental feeding program.

There is also hope that a plan endorsed by the Audubon Society will be approved soon. It would involve moving two pairs from the county to a special raptor breeding facility in Idaho, then bringing the eggs back and placing them in nests at Shoreline, a feasible plan because experts say the owls are not particular about whose eggs they hatch.

But the plan must be approved by the state Department of Fish and Game, which has been sitting on the proposal for over a year. Audubon officials hope that will change when Assemblyman Paul Fong, who recently toured Shoreline's owl habitat, gets involved.

In a statement, Fong said he is "looking into what can be done to keep the burrowing owl population strong at Shoreline and other parts of Santa Clara County."

The city is also looking at ways to decrease the impact of its development plans at Shoreline, which include a soccer and baseball fields south of the Shoreline Golf Links. Part of the solution will add vegetation, brush and rocks to the golf course that is designed to make good hunting grounds for owls looking for rodents. Owls have been seen nesting around the course recently.

If the city can continue to protect some open space at Shoreline, and the owls get a boost from the remote hatching program, it should help the population stabilize in the coming years. The city and the Audubon Society have shown a remarkable commitment to keep Shoreline's owl population healthy. It is a challenge but one that we're sure most Mountain View citizens are happy to support.

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