We Thank Whooooo

Nearly 3000 volunteers rehome more than 1000 owls during the past decade

February volunteers braved a chill wind, huddled together in open country adjacent Arizona’s Gila River. Despite the cold, excitement was in the air because it was release day, and our objective was to carefully dismantle 27 temporary release tents holding a total of 53 relocated Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia).  We would soon see the birds fly free in their new home!  The volunteer team couldn’t be more diverse: people of all ages and from all backgrounds gathered out in the middle of nowhere to work hard. We had a marvelous time! 

Audubon Southwest began partnering with local wildlife rehabilitation organization Wild At Heart in 2014, and this year marks a decade of engaging our volunteers directly with hands-on bird conservation in an unforgettable way. Burrowing Owls are one of 13 owl species found in Arizona, and they differ from their relatives by being active during the day, living in groups, and nesting and roosting in underground burrows. Historically, the species occurred in close association with prairie dogs or other burrowing mammals because the owls don’t dig their own burrows. Instead, the birds claim abandoned homes or take up residence in manmade structures like irrigation pipes or culverts.  
Development in the Phoenix valley first eliminated burrowing mammals, then greatly reduced available habitat for foraging. Wild At Heart stepped in and developed a safe method to trap owls from construction sites and move them to new areas. Audubon’s role in this work is to recruit and manage volunteer efforts to prepare the new sites by building artificial burrows there, and then helping construct temporary release tents to house the birds while they adjust to the new surroundings. After 30 days, volunteers carefully take the tents down, and the birds fly free. Over the last decade, Audubon has engaged almost 3000 volunteers and helped release more than 1000 owls. 

A total of 186 Audubon volunteers participated in the owl project during the 2023-2024 workday season (October to April) and assisted with the release of 155 relocated Burrowing Owls at three sites. Two of these sites are on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) properties and are safe from future development. All three sites show great promise for the owls long-term and most of the relocated birds are staying in the area and are nesting. Our last report from the Gila River site stated that “owls were everywhere” and a total of 15 birds were counted perched dutifully outside burrow entrances. This behavior is typical of male owls guarding an incubating female—so owlets are sure to follow soon.  

This work isn’t possible without volunteer support, and we are SO GRATEFUL for the continued support and camaraderie from folks that come out again and again to help the little owls. No experience is necessary, and all tools and instruction are provided. We will gear up again in October so learn more here and sign up for our mailings here. You’ll receive a notification of fall workdays in August/September, and we hope you will join us in the field.  

How you can help, right now