Wild Saint Mary's
Mention wildlife and college in the same breath and it conjures up visions of the 1970s movie Animal House. But in a setting as serene as the Moraga Valley, the wildlife most talked about at Saint Mary’s College is the four-legged or feathered kind. Consider the words of ornithologist Brother John James O’Neill, who noted 100 avian species on campus in 1981: “It is my hope that this list will give guidance to Integral Biology students and pleasure to visiting birdwatchers. May it also serve as a reminder of the beauty that surrounds us if we only take the time to look, and wonder.”
While the incursion of wildlife into populated areas is increasing around the nation, for a number of reasons, the Saint Mary’s campus, with its park-like setting on 420 acres, has always shared space with the wild animals of the Moraga hills. And it still inspires wonder, along with a host of other emotions. Barbara Smith, administrative assistant to the president, remembers the time, 20 years ago, when a wild turkey decided to invite himself to a fancy luncheon in Brother Jerome West Hall. “There was a whole flock outside and this one bird decided this would be a good adventure,” she said. He jumped on the table where the dishes were set up and Public Safety had to haul the bird out in a tablecloth. Meanwhile, student Craig Phillips remembers a turkey causing quite a kerfuffle when he strutted through the propped-open doors of a classroom in Sichel Hall last year.
Several years ago Bill Sullivan, director of scheduling and promotions, took photos of two young barn owls nesting in a broken downspout on the roof of Augustine Hall. It was during the summer when students weren’t around, so he was able to lean out of a third story window and snap away at the owlets peeking over the edge of the downspout. “They were old enough to be more curious than afraid,” Sullivan said. “But they were almost ready to leave the nest and not long after that they were gone.”
Courtney Carmignani ’05, associate director of alumni and volunteer engagement, remembers when she was a student there was a famous family of albino raccoons that was actually featured in a cover photo in the Collegian. But it was an encounter with a cow that topped her list of animal tales. It was during preparation for the annual Barbecue in the Grove. “I headed out to the Redwood Grove to set up and found a huge black and white cow in the grove, eating the grass. I could not get her to move! Even my golf cart zooming around her didn’t get her out of there.” In the 83 years that Saint Mary’s College has been in Moraga, some stories have been told so many times, they’ve achieved folklore status. The brothers cutting their hair for the birds to use making nests, the students coaxing the cow up the stairs of Augustine Hall — these stories are all told with great embellishment.
But where cows were once plentiful, it’s the flocks of wild turkeys that rule the roost these days, and when they mingle with any of the estimated 100 feral cats at Saint Mary’s, the results can be comical. Collegiate Seminar professor Jim Smith once observed a cat descend from the cradle of a Cork Oak to check out a flock of hen turkeys. “This cat came down — playing the leopard — stalking them,” he said. What proceeded to unfold was a curious dance where the cat would advance on the birds, and they’d move as a unit to push him back. “They were huge birds,” said Smith. “There was no way the cat was going to do anything.”
Controlling the cat population has been a labor of love for several professors, staff and students, who are following a plan used at a number of other campuses. “When Stanford started their project 10 years ago, they had 1,500 cats and now they’re down to 200,” said Felicidad Oberholzer, professor of religion and theological studies, who along with Integral professor Alexis Doval, runs SMC Ferals. It’s been proven that the most effective and humane way to handle the cats is to trap, neuter and release them back to their colonies on campus, Oberholzer explained. As for claims that they’re threatening the bird population, she said, “Yes, cats kill birds. But it’s unlikely to happen when they’re in a colony and fed.”
SMC Ferals makes sure the campus cats eat regularly and tracks them online. Meanwhile, Doval has created a Google bird map for the species he and his students have identified during freshman lab. They include sapsuckers, finches, towhees and a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks they captured on camera in the process of mating. Most prolific, perhaps, are the Cliff Swallows who seem to have chosen the eaves under Brousseau Hall as their own personal maternity ward. (See photos and a Google map of birds on campus.)
Brother Charles Hilken remembers other winged creatures leaving their mark on campus over the years, including the owl that lived in the Chapel tower some 20 years ago. “It would occasionally drop its stomach contents (bones and fur) on the chapel steps.” Relative newcomers to SMC’s bird “sanctuary” are the crows, which biology professor Larry Cory calls “free wheeling” creatures that can be found from the branches of the tallest trees to the open lawn. “They first appeared on the campus in the year of the great Oakland fire and have been residents here ever since.” Among the best songbirds, he noted, are the House Finches, Warbling Vireo and Blackheaded Grosbeaks. Day after day, the show goes on at Saint Mary’s. It’s like watching Wild Kingdom on a loop. For most of us, that’s a whole lot better than watching Animal House.