Barn Owl in the Forest Knolls’ Forest

I was driving west along Clarendon Avenue, heading homeward. As I slid into the turn lane to make a right on Christopher, something white lay on the side of the road. I slowed nearly to a stop, unsure what it was. Then I recognized it as a barn owl, wings spread. My fear was that it might be injured, perhaps from hitting a car.

To my relief, it rose into the air and disappeared into the trees of Sutro Forest, a rodent clutched in the talons of its right foot. It must have just caught it.

But I was in even more luck! As I turned right, it sailed out of the forest ahead of me, looped over Christopher Dr, and flew back to a tree beside the street. Then it took off again, but only went a little deeper into the forest.

The last time I saw a barn owl in Forest Knolls was seven years ago: Evening Walk with Owl and Moon

Later, I went back. The owl was there, but difficult to see in the darkness. I heard rustling sounds that suggested it was eating the rodent it had caught. I tried getting photographs, but both my phone and camera rebelled at the darkness. This picture is an edited public domain photograph.

So if you hear hisses, screeches, and rasping noises from the forest – or around our neighborhood – it’s barn owls on rodent patrol. (Also, please don’t use rodenticides, especially slow-acting ones like brodifacoum. It could kill the owl.)


Wild Parrots of San Francisco! – M. Bruce Grosjean

It was the book and movie, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill that first drew my attention to the marvelous fact that San Francisco has parakeets. Those birds originated in South America.  They’re related to the now-extinct Carolina Parakeet, which was found in North America until the early 1900s, being declared extinct in 1939.

I was interested to learn, while reading a birding group, that there’s a different parrot in town. Parrots are very social birds, and they need company. Apparently, the stranger can recognize a parrot when he sees one, so the new bird is hanging out with the locals.

How wonderfully cosmopolitan is our city?

The story and photographs below are from M. Bruce Grosjean, and are published here with permission.


Back in October 2012 I reported seeing a single Rose-ring parakeet that seemed to be trying to attach itself to the larger population of our local Red-masked parakeets. Whereas the flock itself is made up of birds that are originally from Ecuador and Peru, this Rose-ringed individual comes from Asia and Africa. The fact that he recognizes they’re all family is fascinating to me.

parrots san francisco - copyright M. Bruce Grosjean
The rose-ringed parakeet, originally from Asia and Africa – (c) M Bruce Grosjean

It was predicted by some observers that the Rose-ringed would not survive all that long, so every time we saw it over a span of about a year and a half we were surprised. But then sometime around a year ago we stopped seeing it altogether and slowly began to believe that this bird indeed couldn’t survive.

Rose-ringed parakeet surround by red-masked conures - (c) M. Bruce Grosjean
Rose-ringed parakeet surround by red-masked conures – (c) M. Bruce Grosjean

So it was a complete surprise a few days ago when I spotted him feeding with a small flock of our local Red-masked birds again. By all appearances he looks quite healthy but still doesn’t seem to get along with the other birds much better than before, and yet he survives – I’m amazed!

parrots san francisco 6 - copyright M. Bruce Grosjean
Rose-ringed parakeet and red-masked parrots at a feeder – (c) M. Bruce Grosjean

[This flock was sighted near McLaren Park. “FYI,” Bruce wrote me as he sent these pictures over, “Some time ago Mark Bittner (The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill) told me that he’d seen this bird on Telegraph Hill, which indicates it does get around.” Here are a few more pictures of the little flock with the outsider bird.  There are higher-resolution pictures at Bruce’s Zenfolio page, HERE.]

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Another Sad Owl Death in Glen Park

Another year, another dead owl in Glen Canyon Park. Last year, almost to the day, I wrote about a dead Great Horned Owl. This time, it’s a barn owl. It may have been poisoned by eating rats that had been poisoned with a rodenticide. Barn owls are wonderful at keeping rodents down, since they eat almost nothing but mice and rats – but when the rodents have been poisoned, the owls die.

dead barn owl

The poor owl has been sent to WildCare for a necropsy (that’s an autopsy for animals), so we can find out for sure. It costs $300 to perform this analysis, and so neighbors are asking for contributions to WildCare (which is a wonderful non-profit that takes in rescued wild animals and birds) to cover their costs.

Anyone willing to contribute can do so by mail, online or phone, please reference “Barn Owl Patient #1754″.

  • Phone: Contact WildCare’s Stewardship Manager, Jan Armstrong, 415-453-1000, ext. 13,
  • (there’s a link on the website to donate money by credit card)
  • By Check: Send it directly to WildCare, 76 Albert Park Lane, San Rafael, 94901.

This is relevant not just to Glen Canyon, but to all neighborhoods, including ours. We’ve seen barn owls here. Rodenticides kill not just mice and rats, but animals up the food chain: owls, dogs, cats, coyotes, hawks.

There’s an initiative to limit the use of some of the most destructive and dangerous ones: see WildCare’s Rodenticide Diagnostics & Advocacy Program . If you have additional questions about rodenticides, you may contact Wildlife Solutions Manager, Kelle Kacmarcik who is coordinating this effort. You may reach her at 415-456-7283, ext. 23.

Please help save our owls and other animals and birds!


Legion of Honor: Royal Treasures and Blackbirds

Yesterday, we visited the Legion of Honor. They have an exhibition of Royal Treasures from the Louvre, a collection of opulent artifacts and woven wall hangings. There’s an inlaid stone table-top that is quite incredible; if you go, be sure to notice the pomegranate seeds…

louvremainThe other highlights were a collection of cups and jugs carved out of semi-precious stones like amethyst and agate and lapis lazuli; and a collection of elegant and ornate snuff-boxes that reminded me of pictures of Faberge easter eggs. The whole exhibition, with its emphasis on rich, fine work reminded me of displays I’ve seen of Moghul art, where a similar dynamic was on display – artisans patronized by a wealthy court, trying to out-do each other in the brilliance and detail of their work.

Somehow, though, in a museum, it just seemed out of context. I’ve visited Versailles once, and there it would have all made sense.


On the way in, we walked past the big fountain at the Legion of Honor. It’s pretty devoid of life – the water is too deep for birds, and there’s nothing there. So I was surprised when I thought I saw a blackbird dive in. Of course I was mistaken. There was no bird, dead or alive, in the water.

fountain with hidden blackbirds

blackbirds under the rim of LOH fountainOn the way back, from the other side of the fountain, I saw what happened. The birds were flying under the rim into the overflow gutter, which had just enough water to make a useful bird-bath. I watched for a few minutes, and saw several birds do the same thing.


Pelican K15 at Pacifica Pier

We’d gone for a walk to Pacifica Pier last month. It’s about 20 minutes from here, but feels like another world. When you walk all the way out and look down at the sea, it’s almost like being on a ship.

pacifica pier

It was late in the afternoon, and the fishermen were beginning to think about leaving. Suddenly, a [brown] pelican descended on the railing, quite fearlessly looking around for handouts.

pelican and fishers

pelican k15 I took a few snaps, then realized it was banded. I moved in closer, and could see the band was prominently marked K15.

It apparently knew the drill. A couple of people gave it their bait fish as they left.

One fisherman told me, as he packed up his gear, that this particular bird was often here. He’d been told, he said, that it was a youngster, and born late in the season. Mortality rates were high for such late-hatched birds.

I wonder if that’s true, and also wonder who banded the bird. It’s clearly meant to be read from a distance.

(If anyone knows, comment here or email me? I tried posting on the SFBirds group of Yahoo, but they only permit San Francisco posts.)


As we were leaving, we saw a couple of wildlife rescue people armed with  net and a carry-box, rounding up an injured gull on the beach. I felt like cheering. (If you happen to read this, rescuers, thanks for your work!)

[Edited to Add: Later, I found out about International Bird Rescue. They have a form to report blue-banded birds on their website, so I did. Here’s what they wrote back.

K15 is one of our celebrities.  It hangs out at the Pacifica Pier a lot and unfortunately gets fed.  He has every ability to care for himself but he likes the snacks.   I am attaching some things for you and one is the poster for the banding project.  K15 is our poster bird.  K15 originally came into our rehabilitation clinic in Cordelia on June 23, 2011 with pouch lacerations and he was in a weakened state.   He was a first year bird and was rehabilitated and released on July 26, 2011 in Alameda.

K15 has been reported 10 times since his release.  It’s doing really well but I really hate people feeding it.  That makes them habituated and that always ends up bad for the bird.  Fingers crossed!

Thank you so much for reporting the bird.  I love your blog.

Thanks for the work you do!  (Here’s the poster – like the one below – as a PDF: BirdRescueBandedPelican)

pelican poster

And if you’re interested in more information about California’s brown pelicans, International Bird Rescue prepared a one-pager (attached here as a PDF): Understanding Brown Pelicans- final ]

Owls and Rat Poison

I have some further information about the owl that died of rat-poison. The chemicals were Brodifacoum and Bromadiolone, both of which are anti-coagulants.

These are “second generation” poisons, and cause death by internal bleeding. They’re both very potent, and are dangerous not only to rats, but to all mammals: cats, dogs, and small kids. And, as we’ve seen – birds, especially owls and hawks.

The antidote is Vitamin K, but it can take a 4-week course of treatment to cure a pet or a child.

The common brand names:

Brodicfacoum: FINAL, JAGUAR, PP-581, WBA 8119, d-con, Havoc, Ratak, Talon
Bromadiolone: Boot Hill, Bromone, Contrac, Maki, Rat-XB, Super-Caid, Super-Rozol

[Edited to Add: More information about the pesticides.]

In San Francisco, the SF Department of Environment permits the use of Bromadiolone on city-owned properties in the form of “Contrac All-weather Blox” — but only in a very restricted way:

For use only in City-owned sewer lines, San Francisco International Airport Terminal Areas, or for commercial lessees on city properties that are not adjacent to natural areas. In commercial establishments, use of product shall be a last resort after other, less-toxic measures have been implemented, including sanitation and trapping, and only where a significant public health hazard is recognized. In all cases, monitoring shall be used whenever feasible to minimize rodenticide use.

The other chemical, Brodifacoum, is not approved for use on city-owned properties.

The problem is that these chemicals are legal. San Francisco has a “Don’t Take the Bait” program in which they’re trying to get retailers and consumers to co-operate in not using the most dangerous formats for these poisons – but they’re still widely available.

Some of these poisons deliberately have delayed action, so that rats – who are pretty smart – will not realize that the bait is poisonous. That means that they go off after eating the bait, and then die over a period of days. They could die inside walls or under floors – or by being eaten by a hawk or owl or coyote or cat or dog when their weakness makes them easy prey. Then the bird or animal that eats them is at risk for poisoning. This happens a lot.

Sometimes, baits are set out in open trays, where any animal (or kid) who samples it can be poisoned.

Sad Death of Glen Canyon’s Great Horned Owl

Great horned owl in eucs (Photo: Janet Kessler)
Great horned owl, Glen Canyon (Photo: Janet Kessler)

A few weeks ago, the Glen Park group had news of a Great Horned Owl found dead in Glen Canyon. There’s a well-known pair of owls that nest there every year, and typically raise two or three chicks. Neighbors fear this may be the male of that pair.

Of course people were upset, and they raised money for a necropsy – an autopsy for animals. This was conducted arranged by Wildcare, a wonderful organization that rehabilitates injured wildlife. (I’ve written about them before, HERE.)

The result came in today. The owl died from eating poisoned rodents.

According the Wildcare press release,

“Commonly available rodenticides [rat poisons] are consumed by rodents, the basic food source for a number of different predators all the way up the food chain. These poisons kill by making whatever animal eats them bleed to death internally – slowly and painfully. While the poisoned animals – targeted or not – are still alive, they can be consumed by other predators. It is a terrifying prospect; to kill many animals while targeting only one.”

three owlets (Photo: Janet Kessler)
Three Great Horned Owlets (Photo: Janet Kessler)

A Great Horned Owl eats about 5 rodents a day, and much more if it’s feeding young. Its favorite prey is skunk, but it also eats rats and mice, rabbits, and birds.  If someone poisons rats to get rid of them, they don’t die right away. Instead they wander around, increasingly weak and slow – and thus particularly attractive to predators. The poison can then kill the bird or animal that eats it – or even the next animal up the food chain. [Edited to add: More HERE about the specific poisons that killed this owl.]


We have Great Horned Owls in our neighborhood. I’ve seen them in Sutro Forest, up on the hillside, and in trees along Crestmont and Christopher. I’ve seen one on a lamp-post on Clarendon Avenue.  We also have barn owls, which are even more vulnerable because they’re not large enough to eat skunks but eat more rats and mice instead. Every time we use rat poison, we’re endangering these birds.

Eucalyptus, fog, Great Horned Owl (Photo: Rupa Bose)
Eucalyptus, fog, Great Horned Owl (Photo: Rupa Bose)

Stow Lake Surprise

Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park on a golden summer evening… it’s one of my favorite places to walk.  It was past seven when I got there, not crowded at all, though a few joggers and walkers and families were still around.  So also a few ducks and gulls, and something that splashed from time to time.

What was it?

A single pied-bill grebe was diving around the boat island, but it didn’t splash hard, it just dived in and vanished. But walking along the water’s edge, I came upon a possible splasher: a large koi fish, I estimate over a foot long. It was white and gold, not the usual well-camouflaged gray. So maybe the splashing was from fish? I still don’t know.

Stow Lake August ducklingI crossed the bridge beyond the boat house, and was startled to see a little bird bobbing along the reeds on the other side: a duckling. It busily swam along the reads, reaching up into the overhanging bushes. Its mother floated patiently along, just supervising junior. I was surprised because it’s so late in the season. I wonder if mallards can hatch a second brood?

I watched it for a while as it explored, for all the world like a toddler running ahead and stopping and looking, while its mother looks on. Here is again, hiding in the shadows of the overhanging tree.

Strawberry Hill was busy with squirrels, showing off their white shirt-fronts as they sat up to people-watch. They moved with the confidence of the popular, knowing that humans were more likely to admire than threaten. And maybe there’d be a nut or two on offer.

There’s been undergrowth removal on Strawberry hill, and maybe tree-trimming as well. It seems rather bare by comparison to what I remember from previous years. Steller’s Jay’s, blue birds with charcoal gray heads and crests, flew around the trees; the work seems to have opened up hunting grounds for them.

On the way back, I came upon the last surprise. Two people were looking at this: A crayfish. Never seen those before at Stow Lake, either.

Making Buildings Safe for Birds

“This is a local issue,” a neighbor said, asking for a response. San Francisco is in the process of finding ways to make buildings safe for birds. In fact, the Supervisors are right now in the process of figuring out what rules are needed (they’ve decided in principle that it should be done).

If you think it’s a good idea, write to your Supervisor. (Right now, ours is Sean Elsbernd; his email address is )

More details below (this post is replicated from


Bird-killers. More dangerous than wind-farms, more insidious than cats… it’s windows. (The glass ones, not the thing produced by Microsoft.) Birds can’t see normal glass, and crash into it. Either they die, or they become easy prey.

San Francisco, like Chicago and Toronto, is trying to introduce legislation to make glass buildings safer for birds. Here’s a quote from the Planning Department website:

The newly adopted Standards for Bird-Safe Buildings [Note: this is a PDF file] explains the documented risks that structures present to birds. Over thirty years of research has proven the risk to be “biologically significant” for certain bird species. Recent studies have determined that annual bird fatalities in North America from window collisions may be as high as 1 billion birds per year or 1-5% of all birds. While the facts are staggering, the solutions are within reach. The majority of these deaths are foreseeable and avoidable. The document summarizes proven successful remedies such as window treatments, lighting design, and lighting operation. The document proposes a three-pronged approach to the problem:

  1. establishment of requirements for the most hazardous conditions; ( page 28 of Standards for Bird-Safe Buildings )
  2. use of an educational checklist to educate project sponsors and their future tenants on potential hazards; and ( page 38 of Standards for Bird-Safe Buildings )
  3. creation and expansion of voluntary programs to encourage more bird-safe practices including acknowledging those who pursue certification through a proposed new program for “bird-safe building” recognition. ( page 33 of Standards for Bird-Safe Buildings )

If you’re living in San Francisco, please write to your Supervisor to support this.


And meanwhile: If you find a crashed bird and it’s not dead — try to rescue it by providing a safe quiet place and some food and water. There’s a heart-warming story here on Walter Kitundu’s marvelous bird blog, wherein he saves a young Western tanager. It has some charming photographs.

Red-tailed Hawks in Forest Knolls

Mary Allen posted these two great pictures of red-tailed hawks on our neighborhood Yahoo Group. They’re reproduced here with her permission and her notes.
These were taken from my living room windows… south facing toward Laguna Honda Hospital. They like to rest at the top of the tree on Warren at the bottom of my hill. I have my camera set up ready to go and when I happen to see them, I quickly rush to open the window and click away before they fly off.
(Taken with a Nikon D5000 200 mm lens.)

Cats, Lies, and the Smithsonian Catbird Study

Like many of us in this neighborhood, I like birds and animals, including cats. So I was dismayed to see the recent  SF Weekly with a huge cover picture of a demonic cat. It contained an article by the controversial journalist Matt Smith, using as fodder a press release from the Smithsonian about a study done in 2004.

That study implied that cats are the main cause of death of small birds. It’s become a talking point for those advocating stronger measures against feral and outdoor cats.  But did the study’s results justify it? No way.

It sounded pretty bad. According to the website of the Smithsonian, “The main determining factor was predation, which accounted for 79 percent of juvenile catbird deaths within the team’s three suburban study sites. Nearly half (47 percent) of the deaths were attributed to domestic cats…”  This makes it sound like cats killed a huge number, over a third of the birds. What huge number was it, actually?  Well, six.

The study followed 69 young catbirds (the name is a coincidence, it has nothing to do with cats really) by putting tiny radio transmitters on them. In the five months of the study (May-September 2004),  42 died from predators, glass-panes, or disease. Cats killed only 6 of them.

Here’s the real picture:


Working in three Maryland suburbs filled with homes and gardens, the  researchers tagged a total of 69 baby catbirds with tiny radio-transmitters. They tracked the birds until the bird was found dead, or its signal disappeared, probably meaning it had moved on.

Of the 42 that died, the researchers figured 33 were killed by some kind predator. For 19 of them, the researchers thought they could make a good guess at what kind of predator got the bird. Besides the 6 actually killed by cats, they thought another 3 probably were because they were found headless. But it turns out that many hunting birds (owls, hawks, for instance) also bite off the head first, so assuming cats did it is a stretch.

Unfortunately, when the study was published, the abstract (the summary that’s the only thing most people read) said:

Why is this misleading?  Two reasons. First, it includes the headless birds that probably were killed by something else. Second, it compares the number with “known predation events” — which just means the number of cases where they guessed at who killed the catbird. What they should use is a comparison agains the whole bunch of tagged birds: 6 out of 69. That would be 8.7%.  The graphic below represents the real story.


And since it’s in the nature of predators to go for the weakest and slowest, it’s more than likely that if the cats didn’t get them, something else would have… an owl, a hawk, a rat, or disease.

What really hurts our birds is destroying their habitat. Everywhere in the city, bushes and thickets are being removed, even in the so-called “Natural Areas.”  Some ground-nesting birds like the quail are particularly affected. It’s easy to blame cats, especially feral cats. Though cats do hunt birds, they’re far more likely to get rodents. But small birds are prey to everything that hunts: hawks, owls, coyotes. They need places to hide and nest.

Not that I’m particularly advocating outdoor cats. Quite aside from the whole bird issue, they are themselves at risk from predators, whether with two legs or four legs or four wheels. As their reflexes slow with age, they face greater odds.

[A longer version of this article appeared on the site.]

Stow Lake with Winter Birds

Having Golden Gate Park so close to home is a gift.

It was a beautiful afternoon, and we headed for Stow Lake. So did a number of  winter birds, the ones that spend their summers in the Arctic and their winters in San Francisco.

I hadn’t brought my bird-book, and couldn’t ID them, being more of a wannabe birder than an expert; but they graciously posed for photos. After that, it was on to my Lone Pine Field Guide of the Birds of Northern California, and a little help from Google.

There were gulls.  Most people consider gulls a  white or brown-streaked aquatic version of crows and ravens. So I was surprised to discover several different species of gull at Stow Lake, besides the ubiquitous Western Gull.

Mew Gull


The first one I saw was a little self-conscious Mew Gull. These gulls visit San Francisco in winter, hanging out in Alaska and Canada during the summer.

Not a Thayer's Gull, but not yet identified

The Thayer’s gull, which resembled the snow owl from the Harry Potter books,  was so pretty I took a bunch of photographs. It looked like it was covered in lace. It also spends summers in the Canadian arctic. This is probably a young gull in its first year. As it grows older, it’ll look quite different — more like the Western Gull. [Edited to Add: This gull apparently is not a Thayer’s. It may be a cross between two other species of gulls. I didn’t actually know there were such things as gull hybrids, which complicates an already tough-for-amateurs identification problem. Thanks to expert birders in the SF Birds Yahoo Group, where the discussion continues.]

Herring Gull

This herring gull really did look like it was posing on that rock, standing sentinel. It’s another winter visitor, just like the Mew and the Thayer’s.

Feeding Frenzy

Someone brought Cheerios for the birds. Gulls have no table manners. Lots of violence and swearing. Luckily the kid couldn’t understand gull-speak.

White-fronted Geese

Usually the geese out at Stow Lake are the big Canada geese everyone knows. But today, there were three White-Fronted Geese cropping at the grass on the roadside, and ignoring people passing within a few feet of them. Don’t know why they’re called white-fronted — they look very brown to me. (The black bird in the picture above is an American Coot.)

And finally, there was this odd duck with a brown head and white throat. I don’t know if it’s a species I couldn’t ID, or if it’s just a variant of the Mallards we see everywhere.

An unexpected bonanza for what was planned as a lovely afternoon walk .