Rancho Santa Fe resident’s bird sculpture wins top award at international competition


Dale Steffen, the “bird man of Rancho Santa Fe,” entered two wood-carved bird sculptures in The California Open, the 41st annual international carving competition on Feb. 15 and 16 in San Diego.

Steffen’s entries included a miniature and full-sized roadrunner. The larger one, “Sanctuary,” won first place and finished second best of show out of more than 20 sculptures in the decorative life size division, birds of prey, game birds and songbirds categories.

Bird sculptures come to life from a lengthy process of love of birds, observation, study, and special attention to detail and composition. Multiple sketches to determine the correct attitude of each bird is important to identify not only the species, but also the story or action of the sculpture.

Steffen started his winning carving when his daughter became interested in roadrunners. Cathy would jog in San Diego’s East County, in areas occupied by snakes, lizards and roadrunners. Six sketches and a decade later, Steffen decided to make a roadrunner eyeing a San Diego alligator lizard. The sculpture became a “sanctuary,” or a place of refuge, he said.

To create his sculptures, Steffen uses modeling clay to make a scale model of a large bird or full-scale of a small bird. This technique helps him make the bird’s proportions and feather groups accurate. Unlike clay, he noted wood is unforgiving. Once wood is removed from the block, it can’t be added back on. Steffen uses Da Vinci oils for the final painting. He uses acrylics for the habitats.

“Sanctuary” became a life-like wood sculpture where the roadrunner is looking for a lizard lunch under a dead tree stump. The miniature roadrunner is shown having caught a lizard by its tail.

In addition to sculpting, Steffen enjoys making oil paintings and pastels of birds. His work can be viewed online at