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Conservationists Help Burrowing Owls to Find New Homes

Posted By : The Animal Facts Editorial Team

Date: January 30, 2022 6:43 pm

Burrowing Owl Research San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

A burrowing owl stands in front of one of the artificial burrows created to help provide new homes for those which are displaced by development

Photo Credit: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

A new study released this week has revealed how conservationists have convinced burrowing owls to take up residence in new burrows when they are displaced from their homes.

The western burrowing owl is a declining species in southern California with their numbers being depleted by development in their habitat. Developers will remove burrowing owls from an area by collapsing their burrow or by physically moving the birds to a new habitat.

Now new techniques developed by a research team led by San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Palm Springs office have created new methods to protect owls displaced by development.

Their methods were published recently in the journal Animal Conservation.

“When development projects impact a protected species, regulations require mitigation of those impacts, but unfortunately actions taken often are not enough to offset the harm done, and the species declines further,” said Dr. Ron Swaisgood, director of recovery ecology at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and senior author of the study. 

“Our goal was to solve the problems inherent with displacement and develop solutions that create a benefit for the owls.”

“These owls play an important role in the ecosystem, helping control insect and rodent populations, and they depend upon burrows, made by small mammals, for their survival. When they are evicted from their homes, if there aren’t available burrows nearby for them to move into, their risk of mortality increases,” explained Colleen Wisinski, conservation program manager at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, and an author on the study.

Translocations are becoming increasingly important for the management of these animals. Unfortunately this process is more time and resource intensive and carries with it a high chance of failure.

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Over the three year study they found creative ways to tempt owls to remain in their habitat to improve conservation outcomes.

“We know this species likes to live close to other owls. If they are released in areas without them, they might leave in search of another area with resident owls. But that search may be unfruitful as the species continues to decline,” said Swaisgood. “We wanted to find a way to trick the owls into believing other owls were living in the area to increase the chances they would settle there.”

Their theory was tested by playing owl sounds while the owls acclimated in a pre-release enclosure. White paint was also splattered to convince the owls that others lived nearby and it was a safe neighbourhood.

“We fitted many of the owls with tiny GPS transmitters so we could track them and figure out where they went,” said Wisinski. “While some left immediately, others stayed and made the new site their home. Soon, many were breeding, and we were thrilled to see their chicks hatched and growing up in this safe protected place.”

“The results were remarkable! The owls were 20 times more likely to stay and make a home in the new location when these acoustic and visual cues were used,” said Swaisgood. “With this discovery, we now have new methods that can be used to minimize the impacts of development and successfully establish owls in safe, protected areas. Our goal was not to stop development, some of which was necessary to develop renewable energy to tackle climate change, but find a win-win solution for owls, people and the environment.”

Learn more about Burrowing Owls here – Burrowing Owl Fact File | The Animal Facts

Learn more about the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance on their website – San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

Burrowing Owl Research San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

A burrowing owl fitted with a transmitter allowing researchers to follow their movements

Photo Credit: Jacob Hargis

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