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It's not Just Burrowing Owls, Kites are Raising Young at the Bulb Too

Robert Brokl
Thursday June 21, 2018 - 03:45:00 PM

Like the little trains that could, burrowing owls have made a dramatic arrival to the Albany Bulb plateau. Birdwatchers and photographers have lined the cyclone fence on the Bulb plateau, under the jurisdiction of the East Bay Regional Park District, hoping to catch glimpses of the birds at their mounds. Burrowing owls are small, long-legged owls that nest in burrows. Unusual for owls, they are active during the day. 

But they’re not the only rare California Species of Special Concern at the Bulb—a nesting pair of kites have successfully raised four young in a nest high in a tree top in the City of Albany-owned portion of the Bulb. Kites are birds of prey, distinguished for their hovering and diving flights. 

(Photo credit: Pam Young) 

Mature adults have dark red eyes, white breasts, and slate-colored wings. This juvenile has dark eyes, an orange band across its chest, and mottled brown white on its wings. 

My husband and I have been walking our dogs at the Bulb for the last 15 years. This year, we met a dog walker and Golden Gate Fields employee at the Bulb, with a replacement dog. The beloved pet he brought to work had died after killing a poisoned rat. Owls, kites, raptors in general, can have the same ugly fate, catching a poisoned rodent. 

The Bulb originated as a construction dumping site--part of the plan to eventually fill in the Bay. (An ornithologist from Boston told us the San Francisco Bay is studied globally as an example of efforts to repair and restore what had been so trashed.) 

Some time back, the plateau to the north of the parking lot was fenced off, as a mitigation for the Tom Bates soccer fields along Hwy. 80. The burrowing owls there were displaced, but officials hoped they might discover the Bulb. Or whatever: don’t mess with a soccer field named for Bates. The owls did move in last year. This year three different birds have been identified. 

Walking at dusk, we’ve been thrilled to experience the owls flying low and soundlessly by us. We’ve also encountered them sitting on the fence, not flying off as we walked gingerly around them. We’ve spotted other owls, possible barn owls, after dark. 

We also met up with Pam Young of the Audubon Society at the Bulb who shared some of their effort on the behalf of the owls. (These small owls are newly in the spotlight, after the recent New York Times story about the burrowing owls in Mountain View that are running up against feral cats favored by Google employees.) Unfortunately, we didn’t see any owls for all the high vegetation, but she was excited to find the kites, the breeding pair and their young. She also noted that their diet was “100% rodents." 

So far so good, like a 4-H project that gets a Gold Medal. Except that the Bulb is an urban park, and impinged upon on all sides by clashing interests. We also hadn’t forgotten about the poisoned pet, and worried how the owls would fare. 

The vegetation covered plateau is regularly mowed, and will be shortly, as the 4th of July approaches. A grass fire would impact traffic on the freeway. 

Scott Possin of the East Bay Regional Park District cites bird biologist Jules Evans who says burrowing owls prefer low grass, mowed areas. If the owls decide to breed, their young may still be vulnerable as late as May. And blackbirds, white crown sparrows, and other birds also nest in that area. As luck would have it, their nesting seasons are mostly over by the drop dead deadline of the 4th, and the nightmare urban plague of fireworks. 

Nearby Golden Gate Fields Racetrack, Costco, and the USPS Distribution warehouse all take measures to control rats and mice, often using rodenticides with anticoagulants and other poisons. Rats and mice are also part or all of the diet of the kites and owls. 

David Duggan, the new general manager of Golden Gate Fields, located within the borders of Berkeley and Albany, is open to exploring other options for rat control. Currently, Swat Pest control is using snap traps only in the stables, but Orkin Rodent Control is also working there. The Orkin phone operator I talked to said they were avoiding poison in their familiar plastic enclosed rodent bait stations, citing problems with rodents dying in walls. But she said they defer to their clients. 

Costco, in Richmond, is a special problem. The exterior of their store is lined with Ecolab plastic bait stations. They are labeled “poison,” with a poison hotline number to call. (I called the 800 number, asking about the bait stations. No help there, luckily I didn’t have a toddler throwing up and turning blue.) The stations have holes for easy exit and entry. Many are cracked and weathered. 

But Costco managers I talked to peremptorily dismissed my concerns. Keisha said the stations were “hotels rats entered and didn’t leave.” Period. Good-bye. The next manager, David Dorado, concurred, saying the rats remained in the traps. He denied the bait inside was poisonous, said that label was to discourage people from opening them up. (Perhaps to kill time during the long wait to have your tires changed?) 

Ecolab is a trip. They are a very big company, with many products. (Soap dispensers at Kaiser, I just noticed.) So I was told by the 800 number operator. She suggested using emails for Ecolab pest specialists, since she had no information about the bait stations, but my emails went unanswered. I did enjoy the Ecolab rodent education YouTube videos, which proclaimed the ground-breaking, patented “rodenticide-free devices (that) lower environmental impact," but the videos were oddly mute, even coy, about how exactly the rodents were dispatched. Snap traps? Baited with what? What if they nibbled bait and then decided to exit—traps don’t always spring. 

As the Swat owner explained, their bait stations aren’t labeled poisonous, because they’re not. 

The same Ecolab stations appear to be placed at the immense postal distribution facility next to Costco. Try getting someone there on the phone. 

Labels on Costco Rodent Bait Stations 

So, we have a situation of a threatened species making a tentative home, against all odds, with danger lurking just across the parking lot, or water. At worst, despite the best intentions of East Bay Regional Park employees and others, you have boutique, feel good conservation. 

The owls and kites have established a tentative foothold. Citizen activism, calling Costco (even better if you’re a member), Congressperson Lee (USPS), Richmond elected officials and Assembly candidate like Jovanka Beckles, Golden Gate Fields, and the East Bay Regional Park Dist. might help. 


Robert Brokl is an Oakland-based artist