The Burrowing Owls of British Columbia
***The following is a post from Lauren Meads, the South Okanagan Site Coordinator for the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of British Columbia (BOCSBC). In addition to her role with BOCSBC, Lauren is a part of our team of volunteer videographers and is the co-producer of our most recent Eyes on Conservation release, Digging for Owls.***
I have worked with the Burrowing Owls and the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC since 2008, as a volunteer first and then as a field worker and now the manager of the South Okanagan Breeding centre and field monitor for the South Okanagan region. I have wanted to tell their story from the perspective of the people working on the ground with the birds. Wild Lens Inc. has been a great way to do that and they have supported our endeavors to tell this story since 2011.
Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) are a small (150-180 g) species of owl that nests in the natural grasslands of North and South America. They live in burrows that are first constructed by other burrowing mammals; in BC these mammals are usually badgers and ground squirrels. They are the only owl that nests in the ground, hence their name “burrowing.” When they first establish a burrow, they remodel the inside by kicking out old dirt.
Sadly, these charismatic owls have been disappearing throughout their range over the last 30 years. In Canada they are listed as Red-Listed (meaning endangered), and in British Columbia they were deemed extirpated in the early 1980s. Wild populations in Alberta and Saskatchewan are still decreasing, and the population in Manitoba was also deemed extirpated in the late 1990s.
There are several potential reasons for declines in Burrowing Owl populations: loss of habitat due to land development, loss of prey species (rodents, grasshoppers), possibly due to agriculture spraying; and the loss of burrowing animals (badgers, ground squirrels, marmots) to dig the holes Burrowing Owls live in. These factors combined with climate changes make this a complex multi-level conservation issue.
In 1990 a group of dedicated volunteers headed by Mike Mackintosh decided to establish a captive breeding re-introduction program for the Burrowing Owl. In 2000, they officially established the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC (BOCS) in response to the need for captive breeding, field activities, education programs and further scientific knowledge. BOCS works with the Burrowing Owl National Recovery Team and the Ministry of Environment to re-establish populations of Burrowing Owls in BC. The Burrowing Owl Estate Winery located in Oliver, BC initially offered volunteer support and over the last ten years has been a major financial contributor to the program. Other government grants and public support have enabled the work to continue.
To accomplish this three breeding facilities are in operation across the province, our largest one is located in Kamloops at the BC Wildlife Park, our second facility is near Vancouver and our newest centre is located in the South Okanagan. From these three facilities we produce about 100 owls a year that are placed in burrows in over 14 different sites on ranch land, provincial land and NGO land in the South Okanagan and the Nicola Thompson Valley. Soft-release caging techniques developed by Aimee Mitchell are used to increase the survivability and productivity of the owls that we have released.
All of the released adult owls and 4-5 week old wild-born juveniles are banded with a US Fish and Wildlife Service aluminum band and a Green/Black alpha-numeric band. The Green/Black band is unique to BC burrowing owls, allowing them to be identified along their migration route and on the wintering grounds. BC owls have been sighted from Washington to California.
The Outlook for BC’s Burrowing Owls
The good grassland stewardship practices (i.e. grazing regimes) of the private landowners involved in the Burrowing Owl re-introduction program ensure foraging opportunities for cattle and owls. The landowners of the Thompson-Nicola region and South Okanagan are instrumental to the future survival of the Burrowing Owl in BC. They have contributed to the success of the recovery program and are essential to its future.
Ongoing Burrowing Owl recovery work in BC will focus on increasing our knowledge of their migration route, expanding public education about grassland ecology, continuing to monitor and survey released and returning owls and supporting landowners and ranchers in their stewardship efforts.
Protecting existing grasslands is paramount to the survival of Burrowing Owls. You can also contribute by reporting any sightings of Burrowing Owls to BOCS (www.burrowingowlbc.org). The combined efforts of BOCS, BC ranchers and the public can help to ensure that these charismatic birds can be found in British Columbia for years to come.