Following decades of human encroachment into California’s grasslands, the once common Western Burrowing Owl is now considered endangered.
In an effort to protect the tiny birds from new building developments in US regions like Silicon Valley, local conservationists have been trying for years to relocate the Western Burrowing Owls in protected grasslands. Getting these endangered owl species to accept their new homes, however, has been rather challenging.
What are Western Burrowing Owls like?
While only measuring about 19-28cm in height — about the size of a robin — the Western Burrowing Owl has distinctly longer legs compared to their large cousins. While their name may indicate otherwise, the birds don’t actually burrow. Instead, the charismatic night birds hole up in abandoned burrows made by other species such as prairie dogs and ground squirrels.
Because of their relatively tiny size and the fact that they live in burrows, the owls are quite vulnerable to attacks by domestic animals such as cats and dogs. This means that, in addition to the risk of habitat loss, living close to human development can take a toll on their species’ survival.
How do you help an owl relocate?
Looking to find a viable way to relocate the owls to other grassland habitats, biologists from San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance have come up with a plan to make the owls feel more at home.
“They like to be in a neighborhood, to live near other owls,” Colleen Wisinski, a conservation biologist from San Diego Wildlife Alliance, told AP. As part of the project, Wisinski and other scientists got creative and devised a set of tools to safeguard the wellbeing of the little raptors.
Previous attempts to relocate the birds have mainly been unsuccessful, with researchers finding that simply releasing the owls into a new grassland habitat wouldn’t do it. As such, for the new research project, the scientists tried to make it look like owls have already lived in the area.
Knowing that the species has a sociable nature, the scientists played recordings of owl calls for the mini birds of prey and sprayed the new burrows with white paint to make them look like owl poop.
Fortunately, the new efforts proved successful, as the researchers managed to convince the relocated burrowing owls to feel at home in their new grassland habitat.
Achieving a new owl community
Over the course of the research, which ran between 2017 and 2018, the biologists involved in the study helped move 47 burrowing owls to 15 new locations. The vast majority of them embraced their new homes.
By 2020, about 50 baby owls (owlets) were born at the primary site of Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve in southwestern San Diego County — a major reflection of the study’s success.
Study source: Animal Conservation – Release strategies and ecological factors influence mitigation translocation outcomes for burrowing owls: a comparative evaluation