***Wren House Brewing Company's U-9 Lager will be ready to fly off the shelves on November 17, 2020. Check out their website on the morning of the release to secure some for yourself and sign up here to help Arizona's Burrowing Owls.***
Golden eyes watch impassively as the bulldozers roll, one after the next, under the baking desert sun. These inquisitive eyes belong to a Burrowing Owl (Athene Cunicularia) standing at attention and stretching to a princely 12 inches above the dust. Does he know somehow that it’s time to fly and set up shop in another weedy lot or culvert? Home sweet crumbling home. Sadly, this scenario is all too common in the southwest where Burrowing Owls have lost most of their range to development and land conversion.
Day-active Burrowing Owls are the only raptor in the world to live and nest underground. Eggs hatch and young grow in utter darkness for the first two weeks of life, then stagger to the surface on gangly, stilt-like legs to await their vigilant parents’ food offerings. Like potatoes with legs, they blend seamlessly into their surroundings despite living in groups, especially with bright eyes closed. These small, cryptically colored birds can be easily missed when construction crews bustle in, fortunately recent Migratory Bird Treaty Act strippings have been repealed and developers WILL have to answer for owls destroyed.
Once a fixture of the western plains, Burrowing Owls relied upon prairie dogs, ground squirrels, and other fossorial mammals for burrow creation. As settlers systematically eliminated these “varmints”, owls were left with fewer and fewer housing options. Ever opportunistic, Burrowing Owls creatively made due with less than ideal situations. Enter land conversion: open country to parking lot or even grassland to scrubland, and things got progressively harder for the small owls. The Downtown Owls project is a partnership between Audubon Southwest, Wild at Heart Raptor Center, and many other federal, state, and corporate partners with the goal of giving Burrowing Owls a hand up. By engaging a diverse array of volunteers, the partnership creates artificial owl burrows in safe areas. Wild at Heart biologists trap owls from development sites and house them temporarily in aviaries. The birds are moved to new homes after a readjustment period and the project has saved over 500 owls and engaged approximately 3,000 volunteers since 2013.
As easy as it can be ignore the plight of an entire species, it is equally hard to forget the poignant story of an individual animal. “U-9” (named for his band number) is such a character -- despite his quirky behaviors, his steely resolve to survive has made him quite the survivor and pioneer. Found on the ground in 2016, U-9 allowed himself to be caught by an animal control officer in Casa Grande. Off to Wild at Heart Raptor Center he went, and upon examination and observation, he was pronounced uninjured and entered the relocation program. In March 2017, U-9 was released at the Maricopa Agricultural Center and his mate was selected for a telemetry project. She was fitted with a radio transmitter and biologists began observing the pair. U-9 quickly stole the show by being unusually bold (with humans and avian predators), repeatedly drinking out of a very steep irrigation ditch no other owls went near (presumably because it was easy to fall in) and decorating his burrows in garish fashion. No one is quite sure where he got the huge pile of decorative ornamental, multi-colored corn but there it appeared one day, in great heaps. Not to mention the other burrow décor: dung, trash, toys. Some undetermined mischief led to a broken leg in 2018, so U-9 was re-trapped and brought to Wild at Heart’s hospital. He was re-released only to be gathered up AGAIN with a bum leg. Finally he was re-released for the second time in 2020 and we’ve been cheering for him ever since. He reliably raises young each year, and can always be counted on for an extra dose of attitude. Who better to name Arizona’s first Burrowing Owl beer after?
Wren House crafted U-9 Lager not only to give the world yet another awesome brew, but also to call attention to the plight of Burrowing Owls and help Audubon raise both a volunteer workforce and a community voice for these iconic birds. Can we count on you to join us? Check out the project and sign-up here.