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Species at risk: The Burrowing Owl

A few years ago, I bought a t-shirt with an owl on it that said “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!” because I’m an environmentalist AND a sucker for silly jokes. I would say I was hitting two birds with one stone when I bought it but, you know...that might be a little weird. More than one type of owl in Canada is on the federal endangered species list, and I feel for them. And man, do I ever love owls.

Species like great horned owls and snowy owls tend to be the crowd favourites, but I love, love, love burrowing owls. They’re the goofiest little things you’ll ever see, and their expressions and behaviour are just priceless.

Photo: Burrowing owls - (c) Ron Dudley"We're a species at WHAT?! NOOOOOO!" Photo by Ron Dudley

In Canada, these little critters have been listed as endangered for nearly ten years now and things just don’t seem to be getting any better for them. They’re essentially extirpated from the provinces of Manitoba and B.C., and what’s left of their range in Alberta and Saskatchewan is shrinking. By the federal government’s own estimation, unless something is done soon to reverse the current trend, burrowing owls will disappear forever from western Canada.

There’s no catch-all explanation for why the decline they’ve been experiencing over the past several decades has been so steep and widespread (Canadian populations decreased by a whopping 90% in the 1990s alone) but there are a number of things we know are causing an impact.

Photo: Female burrowing owl, Okanagan, B.C. - Bob Lincoln
Finders, keepers! Burrowing owls make their homes in abandoned burrows dug by other animals like badgers and ground squirrels. Photo by Bob Lincoln

In the prairies where these owls make their home, the conversion of open grasslands to cropland and the fragmentation of the landscape have been the primary factors leading to their decline. Aside from the fact that this conversion and fragmentation directly affects the size and quality of available habitat for burrowing owls, it also affects the size and quality of available habitat for other animals like badgers (some of which are also endangered in Canada) and ground squirrels. How does that affect burrowing owls, you ask? Well...they’re lazy. Alright, they’re not lazy – but they don’t dig their own burrows, and instead will use abandoned burrows left behind by other creatures. Simple, yet effective (...I like the way they think).

Being in a place with plenty of burrows is pretty key to their survival, but things like predation and food shortages also have pretty serious impacts on their numbers. Not that they don’t put up a fight or anything – they’ve learned to imitate the sound of a rattlesnake’s tail to scare away their predators, which I’ve always thought was awesome. And apparently quite effective! I’ve never seen it in action so I can’t speak to whether or not it works, but major points for resourcefulness.

Photo by Ron Dudley

Because they fall under the protection of the federal Species at Risk Act, there are official recovery efforts underway that we hope will give a boost to their population numbers. Efforts to reintroduce captive-bred young owls into wild populations have been met with some success and programs that provide artificial burrows and supplemental food sources have also been helping. What’s more, monitoring programs that are part of these recovery efforts have contributed enormously to our overall understanding of these birds, and help to inform how to approach management of the landscape and the species.

Having a strong federal Species at Risk Act gives these owls hope. They depend on the protection the Act provides, and they’ll without a doubt be put at great risk if the Act is weakened. The best (and, quite frankly, easiest) thing that you can do to help them is to take a moment to write a letter to the Minister voicing your support for keeping our federal Species at Risk Act strong. I don’t want to see these little guys disappear. Do you?