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This year, 2016, marks the centennial of the first Migratory Bird Treaty, which the United States signed with Great Britain on behalf of Canada. That treaty and the three that followed — with Japan, Russia and Mexico — form the cornerstones of our efforts to conserve migratory birds, like the Burrowing Owl.
To learn more about them, I talked to Kirsten Cruz-McDonnell. She’s chief biologist for Envirological Services, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people and wildlife co-exist. She says these owls don’t like to be around very large trees or really tall posts.
“That’s why they’re birds of the open.”
Otherwise you will find them in some human-altered areas… “such as golf courses, airports, and you’ll often see them around agricultural fields.”
They like dry, open areas with low vegetation, and unlike many owls, these guys will be out day and night foraging for food. Burrowing Owls feast on insects and small mammals, often chasing after them across the land afoot, but they’ll also eat reptiles and amphibians. During our winter, the burrowing owls have migrated south.
“Yes, down into Central America and Mexico. Often, New Mexico is an important wintering ground for this species, as well as south Texas and southern California.”
The owl migrates north, and nests and breeds across the western United States and into southern Canada.
“Although they are declining more rapidly on the northern edge of their range; they are listed as endangered in Canada.”
But the burrowing owl’s population is in decline.
“Because the decline is widely attributed to habitat loss due to conversion for agriculture and urban growth.”
But there’s another reason.
“Also the decline of the prairie dog. It’s dependent on this species and others for its nest burrow.”
Ah ha! The truth is out. The burrowing owl — North America’s only raptor that nests underground — doesn’t burrow! It lets others do the work. It’s a squatter! Trouble is, it’s symbiotic relationship with the prairie dog is causing itself trouble.
“With the prairie dog declining so drastically, the decline of the Burrowing Owl is closely linked.”
Matt Bain is project coordinator for The Nature Conservancy’s huge Smoky Valley Ranch in western Kansas, where that natural inter-dependency between prairie dog and owl is recognized.
“One of our management goals for the ranch is to maintain about ten percent of the ranch that is occupied by prairie dogs. We know that if we can manage for Burrowing Owls and prairie dogs on at least that many acres that we will maintain that representative species, that Burrowing Owl, that represents all those other grassland nesting birds that depend on that same type of habitat.”
Kirsten Cruz-McDonnell says there’s some interesting conservation work going on for the owl.
“For example, in areas of low burrow availability, people are installing artificial burrows — nest boxes installed underground for the owls to use. These have been very helpful since the decline of the prairie dogs is contributing to the decline of the owl.”
Work continues to find ways to conserve the burrowing owl even as prairie dog populations decline.
Playa Country, which ended in late 2016, was a weekly show that featured conservation and wildlife experts — as well as farmers, ranchers and land managers — talking about conservation practices that improve wildlife habitat and landowners’ bottom-line. Our thanks to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, in Ithaca New York, for the featured bird song.