May I borrow your burrow?

From March, 2009 Newsletter

By Esperanza Sanz Escudero

"Did you see the owl sitting on the white sand patch? "-- Asked Phillip.

"Certainly I see the patch, not the owl "- I replied.

"Look carefully again. One is standing right there." -- He insisted

There it is. A little, whitish, burrowing owl, having a look at the golfers that are really close to its burrow. The whole episode happened at Shoreline in Mountain View this last November. The characteristics of those raptors are: yellow eyes, short body, able to live 9years in the wild and around 10 in captivity, with reversed-size dimorphism (male is slightly larger than the female; normally in other raptors is the opposite), accustomed to living close to humans, hunting from the air or by foot, day or night.

Burrowing owls are one of the smallest owls in the world (a little bit larger than an American Robin). They are the only ones that live underground, taking over burrows from other animals like ground squirrels. They are also the only owl that eats fruits and some seeds, and lays more eggs that any other bird of prey (12 to 13 compared to 1 to 6 for other raptors.)

They are really common where the grasses are short. They need to be aware of their predators. These owls love airports, campuses and golf courses, which is apparent by where you find them around Santa Clara County: San Jose State University, Moffett Airport, San Jose Airport and Shoreline park (near the golf course-Mountain View.)

Even taking all this into account, they are species of special concern under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, - they are threatened due to natural predators, domestic animals, special programs for prairie dogs, and vehicles. Their habitat has been diminished due to extensive construction. That means that everyone needs to take care of them. There are programs where cities and people are working to preserve their burrows or building new artificial ones. The little owl needs the burrow to protect themselves from their natural predators and also to raise their new chicks. You can see some of the natural or artificial burrows at Shoreline in Mountain View and the owls too.

Protecting the owls, as everything in life, is not that simple. Many consider ground squirrels pests, but they construct the burrows that this little cute owl uses. Similarly, prairie dogs can damage farm crops, so programs have been created to eradicate them. But these programs are harming the owls too, due to the fact that prairie dogs live side by side with burrowing owls, and owls benefit by taking the burrow that prairie dogs build. Taking care of one species requires thinking about the other species we impact. What would happen if we remove one of the pieces of this complex puzzle? Only then, we will understand that we are included in that puzzle. If we take care of everything in our environment, from the prairie dog, to the ground squirrel, to the burrowing owl, we take care of ourselves too.

References and credits:

Migratory Bird Treaty Act: http://www.fws.gov/laws/lawsdigest/migtrea.html

Burrowing Owls: http://www.owlpages.com/owls.php?genus=Athene&species=cunicularia

Phillip Higgins lectures on Burrowing Owls. Employee at Shoreline restoring burrows and taking care of the owls, and Biology instructor at De Anza College.

Prairie dogs: http://www.desertusa.com/dec96/du_pdogs.html

Picture: Yamil Saenz: http://www.usefilm.com/image/1465167.html

Special thanks: To Philip Higgins to give me the opportunity to visit some burrows at Shoreline in Mountain View.