Resettlement of Burrowing Owls in Southern California

In Southern California, urban developers built over the burrows of the local Western Burrowing Owls, destroying their habitats.

The Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) is a small, long-legged bird in the Strigidae family of owls. It measures 19-28 centimetres (7-11 inches) tall, with a wingspan of 50-61 centimetres (20-24 inches). It is native to North America and South America. It prefers grasslands, rangelands, agricultural areas, deserts and other open dry areas. 

Unlike most nocturnal (night) owls, the Burrowing Owl is diurnal, active during the day. 

It nests in burrows underground that a prairie dog or a squirrel has dug into the soil. It also nests in other shallow, underground structures.

The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance collaborated with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to relocate the Burrowing Owls that had lost their homes when humans began building in the area. 

Burrowing Owl

First, they had to collect the colonies of 44 resident owls. They established burrows with special one-way doors. The wildlife officers moved them to a new location, but they put them into two groups to test what is the best form of resettlement. 

One group of 22 owls were sent to a location where they tricked the birds into believing that owls already lived there. The wildlife officers painted white non-toxic paint on the rocks near the new burrows to make it look like bird droppings (bird poop). The white paint made it look like the site was already inhabited. An outdoor speaker was also established to play owl calls and noises during the week before the owls were released. 

The other group of 22 owls were sent to a location where there were no other owls and the wildlife officers did not make it look like it was already inhabited.

The wildlife officers found that the 22 birds in the location with white-painted rocks and owl noises all resettled very quickly, and they stayed in their new location.

The other 22 birds in the new location with non-painted rocks and no owl noises all wandered off. None of them resettled and they all made dangerous journeys to look for their own location. Some travelled up to 8 kilometres (5 miles) before they found suitable habitats.

Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl

Location of photographs: London Zoo, England

Photographer: Martina Nicolls


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