We had been sitting in the car motionless for about 15 minutes when my dad, not the world’s most patient person, pronounced “okay, enough is enough”! Give it a minute, I whisper, and as if on cue, a tiny, golden-eyed owl popped out of a concrete culvert. The Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) surveyed the unremarkable scene: sun setting on a dusty, weedy field with trash blowing. He ignored the two humans sitting motionless in a vehicle adjacent the field, the larger human’s mouth hanging open in a soundless “O”. Although we sat a mere 25 feet from the bird’s underground home, the bird was so accustomed to vehicles that we did not pose a threat. Convenient for a new bird biologist getting the hang of field data collection, but not always the best mentality for a small, ground-dwelling bird to have.
If Diana Spencer was “the people’s princess”, the Burrowing Owl is the “people’s owl”. Most everyone agrees that Burrowing Owls are charismatic in an approachable way: attractive, seemingly friendly, and gregarious. They are active during the day and live in groups so are easy to observe. Other owls are stately-- cool to be sure-- but like royalty, busy in their own worlds that average people will never know anything about. Unfortunately, hanging out with the commoners isn’t working out so well for Burrowing Owls these days. They tend to persist in developed areas with admirable tenacity, but as natural open spaces shrink so does their prey base. The further the owls travel from their homes to forage, the more dangers they face: vehicle collisions, predators like coyotes and hawks, and the chance that they will expend precious energy only to find nothing to feed their young or themselves.
Audubon’s partnership with the Wild At Heart Raptor Rehabilitation Center facilitated the rehoming of hundreds of Burrowing Owls since 2014, and engaged thousands of individual volunteers—many of whom have become loyal supporters of the project. Because these small owls live underground, and don’t dig their own burrows, human helpers are now needed to furnish homes that used to be provided by prairie dogs and other underground dwellers. Wild at Heart has developed a burrow-building system that novice volunteers can easily grasp and provides all the tools and gloves. No prior experience is needed, and the commitment is low: 3-4 hours, usually on a Saturday morning.
Our unfortunate situation currently is that we need to move the owls outside of the Phoenix’s sprawling boundaries and into safe sites on public lands west of town. When volunteers see our workday announcements, they are willing to help… until they see the travel times. Our new strategy to identify clubs, classes, or corporate groups interesting in spending a morning helping owls. In exchange, we will provide bus transport. The owls can’t thank you for helping, but this is our way of doing so.
Back to car, and my once impatient and now transfixed father. “Those little guys are pretty vulnerable! Their homes could get crushed, they could be hit by cars, so many bad things could happen!” I nod. “Who can even help them?” he demanded. I answered him then, over 20 years ago, the same way I answer now: “It starts with you”. Whether you are helping in the field, supporting a wildlife organization financially, or talking to community leaders, the little owls need you more than ever. If you are an individual and want to add to our workday announcement list, please do so here. Better yet, if have a team willing, we have potential sites waiting, and a bus. Please reach out to Cathy Wise at firstname.lastname@example.org
PS: Guess who became a Burrowing Owl advocate? Did you say an impatient retired firefighter that dutifully accompanied his daughter to the field? You might be right!