Notes From the Field: Burrowing Owl

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I turn over in bed and look at the clock its 230am. Normally I would roll over in bed and sleep for another few hours before work but today is not a normal day. I scuffle around in the dark like a sleepy possum and somehow make it out the door with all my gear. My pack consists of binoculars, spotting scope and five dead frozen mice. The hour drive to the El Sol property goes quickly once I get a bit of coffee into my veins. The lack of traffic at 3:00am is also nice. Stay asleep Southern California, I like you better that way. So why am I up so early to go to work? It is a burrowing owl banding day!

A few years ago along with burrow checks and breeding pair surveys we started banding the burrowing owls. Banding the owls involves placing a metal US fish and wildlife service band on one of their legs. We can also use a auxiliary band with a color that is specific to individual banders. Banding the birds allows us to keep track of where the owls go. If they come back the following year to nest we can read the bands with a spotting scope or remote camera. We also sometimes recapture banded birds and are able to track them that way. Burrowing owls are  capable of traveling impressive distances during the migratory  season and re-sighting of these bands helps scientists figure out where the birds are going.

There are many techniques for catching burrowing owls for banding. Owls can be difficult to catch as some of the classic bird trapping techniques are completely lost on them. The simple reason being the little buggers have excellent eye sight. For example It is almost impossible to catch a burrowing owl in a mist net, the owls can see it and will fly right over. The best way to catch and owl is to either place box trap with one way doors at their burrow entrance or in our case lay down noose carpets. We like to zip tie a nice juicy dead mouse the trap. The hatchling owls are tricked into thinking the mouse is a prey item dropped off by an adult and when they go in to investigate they get their feet stuck in the noose carpet. We quickly run to free the owl and bring them to our banding station.

As a biologist it is very important to keep a scientific view of your study animals. Wild animals are not pets. The animals should be handled with care, and processing time should be as brief as possible. No study animals should be kissed, hugged or loved on as it would cause their tiny little hearts to go into cardiac arrest. They should not be named, they do not have human emotions. Wild animals are wild. they need to be respected and handled properly.

That being said, any biologist who tells you they have never anthropomorphized an animal is either a liar, is in denial of their pretentiousness, or they have no soul and are likely very aware of their pretentiousness. Burrowing owls are the most charismatic animals I have ever worked with. They have large yellow eyes, small grasping talons and beak which are useless against human skin. This does not stop them from trying to rip you apart. They have a shrill alarm call, a hiss, and other various vocalizations. Burrowing owls are fascinating and to be completely honest very, very cute.  Their mannerisms provide endless entertainment which is very welcomed when you have to sit for a 5 hour survey at 430 in the morning. While their endless bobbing and searching about with those big eyes may seem cute and neurotic, it is actually an evolved behavior which allows to the search for predators. They are after all a small time raptor on a much bigger food chain.

Owls themselves are quite effective predators. While monitoring burrows I have seen adults carry in food items including snakes, beetles, scorpions, horned lizards, and kangaroo rats. The latter of which is about half the weight of a healthy adult burrowing owl.

After a long morning of trying to catch owls we managed to band a few and set them back in their burrows. Some may question the usefulness of monitoring a species like the burrowing owl. What exactly does monitoring a burrow owl do to better the world? Although this is a loaded question I always try to answer it the best I can . Animals and places in the natural world have the value we assign to them. I value wildlife and not just because I make a living studying it. The owls, the kangaroos rats, the snakes, and the plants all make up the world around us. We can either see them as separate from us or recognize that they are important parts of our world which we can take some level of ownership and pride in. Southern California burrowing owls sometimes travel as far as Mexico or Arizona to breed in your SoCal backyard. It pretty amazing when you think about it. We should strive to protect these animals, the California natives, and all the species of the world.

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