Burrowing owls are a perky little extrovert

On Feb. 26, Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS) will be hosting its sixth annual Eaglefest at the Maritime Heritage Center in Campbell River.

A family of burrowing owls stare down an intruder outside their man-made nest burrow.

On Feb. 26, Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS) will be hosting its sixth annual Eaglefest at the Maritime Heritage Center in Campbell River.

Bald eagles are magnificent birds and just one of many species cared for at our rehabilitation center. Eaglefest also provides us with an opportunity to invite a variety of guest speakers including biologists, naturalists, and birders to share their knowledge and experiences. This year is no exception and we offer a unique opportunity to learn more about one of B.C.’s endangered species and the program that hopes to successfully breed and return families back to the wild, sustaining and increasing their populations – burrowing owls.

Burrowing owls are perky, extroverted and have many fascinating habits and characteristics. They are diminutive in size. Standing only 21-28 cm, they have a 51-61 cm wing span and weigh between 160-240 grams.

Habitat for these owls is very specific. They need dry grassland and valley bottoms that are also inhabited with burrowing mammals.

Found in a few locations across the mid and western United States, they are also found in small areas of B.C and Alberta.

Their natural range in B.C. is less than one percent of the land in the Kamloops, Thompson-Nicola region and in the Osoyoos area.

In 2005 MARS rescued an adult burrowing owl in Campbell River; apparently it had strayed off course during the spring migration and was sent to a breeding facility in the Fraser Valley.

As their name suggests, these owls live underground in previously-excavated burrows, mainly those of prairie dogs, badgers, ground squirrels and ferrets. With the loss of agricultural lands and urban expansion, these owls have adapted to golf courses, along airport edges and even to manmade burrows.

Comical and inquisitive, these little owls are perfectly camouflaged to blend in with the sandy and dry grassy areas they inhabit. Their bodies and backs are brown covered with white spots and bars, their legs and under parts are beige with brown barring.

Little round bodies sit atop stilt-like legs which are covered with very short feathers which prevent snagging as they run through the grass when chasing prey.

Large yellow eyes stare out from under white eyebrows.

Burrowing owls hunt during the day but prefer dawn and dusk when the temperature is cooler. Favourite prey for these owls includes a variety of insects, scorpions, snakes, grasshoppers, small rodents and birds.

Unlike most owls, burrowing owls are community dwellers living in small colonies; they will often hunt together posting a male on “sentry duty” who will raise a vocal alarm if danger approaches sending the colony scurrying underground to safety.

Usually burrowing owls hunt from an elevated vantage point dropping to the ground pursuing the prey on foot.

Burrowing owls are migratory birds and they can travel over 3,500 kilometres south to Texas and Mexico. Leaving in September they return in April for the breeding season.

The male prepares the burrow, removing old material and digging out dirt before relining the burrow with new material including dung complete with dung beetle larva which provides the brooding female with food. Its odor deters unwanted visitors.

Six to 12 white eggs are produced over a period of days allowing each owlet access to food.

Burrowing owls were listed as threatened species for many years and upgraded to “endangered” in 1996.

In 1983 the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of B.C. was established after it was noted that the owls’ populations were declining.

Working with the B.C. Ministry of Environment, families of burrowing owls were transplanted from Northern Washington State to the Osoyoos and Vaseaux Lakes areas in hopes that they would boost local populations.

The program was discontinued in 1989 when returning migrant owls started to dwindle and so did Washington State’s own populations.

In 1990, a new program was underway establishing new facilities with specially-designed, man-made burrows and a captive breeding program. This program studied suitable release sites, worked with landowners and local municipalities educating them about the owls and the conservation program.

The goal is to release breeding pairs into suitable locations in hopes that they will reproduce and continue to thrive. So far the program seems to be reaching the goals it has set and educating the public to the continued threats to these owls.

We are thrilled to have Mike MacIntosh who runs the program along with “Beaker” the burrowing owl ambassador at the eagle fest.

Please check our web site at www.wingtips.org for more information and www.burrowingowlbc.org for more details on the program.