Mountain View Voice

Opinion - April 6, 2012

Owls have friends at City Hall

Life is not easy for the small flock of burrowing owls who live on a small patch of habitat in the midst of Google offices, the Shoreline Golf Links, and the thousands of visitors who venture to the recreation area at the end of Shoreline Boulevard.

The owls — only nine inches tall — have survived at Shoreline for 25 years, nesting in abandoned gopher holes and foraging for the ground squirrels that are the bulk of their diet. They are designated a species of special concern in California, vulnerable to extinction due to diminishing habitat and declining populations.

The increasing pressure is taking its toll. Encroaching development and other factors have led to the lowest owl census in years — just three nesting pairs who produced 10 chicks last year. City officials look on this as good news, although in better times (2003) 22 chicks were hatched at Shoreline.

Clearly, if the owls are to survive here, more needs to be done and last week staff members presented a new blueprint for how the city could enhance the nesting and foraging capability of the owls with a goal of boosting the population to 10 nesting pairs which would be expected to produce up to 30 fledges or chicks a year.

For the plan to be successful, biologists say more areas must be set aside for the owls to find food, a key factor that has caused the population to struggle in recent years. Until now, it was thought that nesting habitat was the most important factor in the owls' success. But after more study and seeing the survival rate drop, the 2012 plan focuses more on finding foraging habitat, such as was recently created at the Golf Links when several ponds were filled, creating more high-quality foraging area. Two other 100-acre tracts have also been identified in the study as high- and medium-quality foraging habitat that should provide the owls plenty of hunting grounds for the foreseeable future.

To meet this goal, biologists say only a modest budget of $15,000 will be needed for fencing, new educational signs and some planting and irrigation. The city already employs Phil Higgins, a part-time biologist and owl expert, who monitors the Shoreline owl population.

The draft plan also will designate specific areas as a burrowing owl preserves where posts will be installed to mark the boundaries. The preserves also will be designated on Shoreline maps that are handed out to the public. Informal trails in the preserve will be removed and the city will provide minimum access roads for maintenance. Existing paved or gravel trails will remain.

All of this is good news for the present and future of the burrowing owls at Shoreline. It is encouraging to see the City Council continue to support this worthy cause. We hope the current effort will allow the owls to flourish and reach the goal of 10 nesting pairs in the near future.

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