What’s Going On With Those Cute Burrowing Owls?

Photo Credit: Wendy Miller, flickr

What’s Going On With Those Cute Burrowing Owls?

Western Burrowing Owls, about nine inches tall with piercing yellow eyes, used to be a common sight in local grasslands, standing at the entrances to the ground squirrel tunnels where they typically make their homes. Currently at risk, these small birds are one of the many species that benefit from advocacy efforts to protect habitat in Coyote Valley and other South Bay areas.

Challenges and Dire Situation

These beautiful birds and their adorable chicks existed in the hundreds in Santa Clara County just decades ago, but are now listed by the State of California as a Species of Special Concern. In just the past seven years, the population has plummeted by about two-thirds, despite valiant conservation efforts by open space agencies, conservation groups, scientists, and volunteers such as those deployed by Grassroots Ecology. Their population decline is due to many factors, including competition for prey (they feed on insects, reptiles, and small mammals, including gophers), more predators in increasingly limited habitat, and urban encroachment on their habitat.

Efforts to save the owls have included habitat maintenance, such as the removal of non-native plants along with planting and monthly watering of native plants to attract their prey; setting up artificial burrows; caring for juveniles over the winter; supplemental feeding during the breeding season; and (since 2019) captive breeding, where a pair is kept together to produce offspring that are released in the spring. Despite these valiant efforts, some former breeding sites have no owls left and inbreeding is occurring at others. A recent count at five of the historical breeding sites identified only 72 Burrowing Owls in Santa Clara County.

The Future for Burrowing Owls

Photo Credit: Mike’s Birds, flickr

That’s why efforts led by the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Agency are critical. Conservation organizations, agencies, scientists, and nonprofits work together under Habitat Agency guidance to increase the Burrowing Owl population and release them far from human activity.

The primary goal of the Habitat Agency’s Western Burrowing Owl conservation strategy is to increase the breeding population and distribution of these owls to keep the population from falling to levels that are not sustainable. The population has unfortunately dropped to that point, so the Habitat Agency is endeavoring to institute new efforts to help in their recovery. In 2021, the Habitat Agency funded the construction of a new breeding and overwintering facility, the largest in California to date. In its first year, two adult pairs produced 19 eggs at the facility and it also provided safe overwintering grounds for a number of other burrowing owls. In total, 43 chicks are being cared for across 3 facilities in the region and some will be released into the wild as soon as spring of next year.

The need to provide safe areas for species to recover is a major goal of Green Foothills’ advocacy efforts in Coyote Valley. We also played a significant part in ensuring adoption of the Habitat Agency’s Habitat Conservation Plan, which guides their work to protect local endangered species, including Burrowing Owls. The protection of sensitive habitats is critical to the survival of the ecosystems on which we all depend.

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