Remembrance of Hootenannies Past: RIP Bernal Hill’s Great Horned Owls

ready for his closeup

great horned owl, now appearing daily in bernal heights

Four years ago this week, Bernal Heights lost some of its most remarkable residents — a pair of Great Horned Owls. The owls lived in a tree along the western side of Bernal Heights Boulevard, and for a time they were a popular neighborhood attraction. Then one died, on April 9, 2007. The second died soon thereafter. And then they were gone.

Their memory continues. Apart from the fact that one of the trails at Ski Bernalwood was named after the owls, they have also been immortalized in a short film, and in a series of excellent photographs taken by Art Siegel. Art’s wife, Carol Gould, wrote a remembrance about the owls for Bernalwood to mark the fourth anniversary of their death:

When the great horned owls were spotted in the trees at the top of the Esmeralda Steps in the fall of 2007, something magical happened in the Bernal Heights community.  People were captivated by the birds — their silent majesty and ferocity were so compelling!  People came to the hill just to stand and look at them.  No one could believe these wild birds had adopted our hill as their home, and they couldn’t resist hanging out with them for even just a few minutes every day.

As a result, the community of walkers, joggers, and dog-owners on Bernal Hill came together more intimately than ever before.  People congregated under the trees where the owls lived and exchanged stories of their first owl sighting.   Connections were formed as people exchanged names, petted friendly dogs, and jiggled the little fists of babies in the arms of their parents.  A baby born during the owls’ visitation was named after them.

My husband Art is a photographer, and the owls provided endless photo ops for him.  We went to the hill almost every day to see the owls and take photos of them.  Art became known as “Mr. Owl Man” and I was “Mrs. Owl Man.”  I would sit by the side of the path, asking passersby if they had seen the owls yet.  It was always fun to point out the birds to someone who’d never seen them, and witness their complete surprise and delight upon spotting them camouflaged in the trees.  They were very hard to see if you didn’t know what to look for, but once you saw them you were amazed at how big they were yet how easily you could miss them.  Soon we began coming up to the hill at dusk to watch them take off to go hunting.  First they would call to one another and jump around in the tree for a few minutes—one would fly off, and then the other.  We followed them around the hill until it got too dark to see them.

The Hill is still a friendly and welcoming place, but it hasn’t bee quite the same since the owls have been gone.  I miss them and the sense of communal wonder they inspired.


PHOTOS: Art Siegel

12 thoughts on “Remembrance of Hootenannies Past: RIP Bernal Hill’s Great Horned Owls

  1. For those hankering for an owl spotting, and willing to leave Bernalwood for a short time, the long-term resident Great Horned Owls in Glen Canyon have chosen (for the 5th or 6th year in a row) to nest in a highly visible spot, a big Eucalyptus along the main road.

    The owl “puppies” (3 this year) are visible much of the time, but are still light gray fluffballs. Best chances for viewing are at dawn and dusk. Bring binoculars for a close-up view.

    • Great tip. Thanks Dave!

      Just a reminder: Whenever you leave Bernalwood, be sure to bring food, water, oxygen tanks, travelers checks, and a satellite phone. It’s a wild world out there once you leave our comfy little hill, so we should always be prepared.

      Oh, and binoculars. Bring those too.

    • I wonder if these are the same owls I regularly hear from 24th and Folsom. Perhaps they wander to the north side of Bernal sometimes? Or could there be other nests around here? It’s hard to tell how far away the hooting is. But I hear it crystal clear more than once a week, especially during the day, oddly enough. I’m pretty fanatical owl lover so I pay close attention. 🙂

  2. As glad as I was when the overhead wire that used to traverse the hill was removed, I’m not so happy that they chose to remove the phone poles that used to hold the wire up. Over the years I’ve seen those poles used as a perch for raptors. I have no idea if something so trivial had anything to do with the fate of the owls. Unlikely. But it does seem like there are fewer raptors on the hill these days.

    Is there any longitudinal data about the birds of Bernal Hill? Something like the Hawkwatch program done on Hawk Hill in GGNRA?

  3. This evening, my partner and I identified a great horned owl on the road running around Bernal Hill at around 10:30 PM. The ear tufts were unmistakable. It wasn’t one of the barn owls we encounter on a more frequent basis.

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  6. I heard a juvenile practicing his ‘hoo’ tonight and then saw it fly!. I hadn’t had any evidence of any owls since these two died, and I am SO happy to know the hill has been colonized again!

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