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[whitespace] Owl
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Owl Be Damned

Developers plow into the homes of the burrowing owl

By Jim Rendon

Name: Athene cunicularia
Status: California species of special concern
Natural Habitat: Central Valley, Imperial Valley, Great Plains states
Last Stand Here: Sunnyvale Baylands, Moffett Field, Mountain View shoreline, Alviso
Reason for Demise: Vast high-tech expansion in north San Jose. Developers most responsible for owl destruction are Peery-Arrillaga

THE BURROWING OWL looks just plain weird, standing stick-straight on the sun-baked ground. Owls should be in trees. Owls should come out at night. Owls should live in the forest. At the very least, owls should not stand around in parking lots like bewildered shoppers who can't remember where they parked. But that's what we've got.

The 9-inch-tall mottled brown raptor is Santa Clara County's celebrity dwindling species. In part, the owl has achieved this status because it's among the most charismatic of the rare plants, insects, amphibians and mammals that are scattered about the valley, easy for environmentalists to talk up and reporters to write about. (Look at all the good the spotted owl did for old-growth forests.) The owl is also in direct competition with developers for the most expensive real estate in the valley. It makes headlines.

The owl needs bottom land. The valley floor here is nearly perfect. It is flat, at a low altitude and covered with ground-squirrel holes, which the owl uses for its home. There is even some evidence that the owl and squirrel cooperate with each other, helping to keep an eye out for predators. Crickets, mice and other small critters that the owl feeds on can be found here in abundance.

Unfortunately, there is little bottom land left without a housing tract, office building or parking lot. Undeveloped property on the valley floor can sell for more than a million dollars an acre, and there is no dearth of buyers. Because of the rampant development over the last half century, the bird's population here has dwindled to about 140 pairs, most of which are in Mountain View and San Jose.

But unlike other species that require complex and sometimes pristine ecosystems to live in, the owls are remarkably adept at surviving in marginal and very developed places. They have been known to live in levees, near runways and in unused fields surrounded by homes and development. And they often try to return to nesting sites regardless of the development surrounding them. Aesthetics are not a big concern.

Jack Barclay, a burrowing owl consultant with the city of San Jose, says that it can be relatively easy to create habitat for the owl. In this valley, habitat has come and gone many times already, he says. Before Europeans tamed the Guadalupe River and the many other creeks that overflowed their banks every winter, the valley floor was swamp half the year. There was little year-round owl habitat here. But for decades, when the lowlands were grazed or used to grow hay and other grasses, the owls most likely flocked to the valley. Orchards may have driven them out, but the fallow land left between the orchards and development once again drew the species back.

But the real problem here is not creating habitat, it's finding any suitable land at all. Though San Jose is in the midst of creating a burrowing owl conservation plan, even its authors admit that it is not easy to identify large tracts of potential habitat. The small slices of disconnected habitat that many developers now set aside can never support a thriving population. The Audubon Society's Craig Breon says that without regional coordination and concerted effort, our celebrity species could be gone before we know it.

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From the November 24-December 1, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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