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Burrowing Owls 

Out of the tree and in the ground

All our small owls—screech, saw-whet, pygmy, flammulated, and boreal—nest in tree cavities, created by woodpeckers, broken limbs or just plain old age. Then there's the little burrowing owl, also a "cavity nester," but the cavity is a hole in the ground.

The burrowing owl is inextricably (oh, how I love that word!) linked to the welfare of our most illustrious digging mammals: badgers. While burrowing owls prey on small rodents, along with insects, amphibians, lizards and such, badgers are prodigious predators of ground squirrels. To catch and eat them, badgers dig them out of their underground fortresses, and in doing so, create homes for burrowing owls.

Without their partners, the badgers, burrowing owls have a tough time finding the place to nest. (However, just the other day, while my wife, Sue, and I were conducting the ongoing Oregon Eagle Foundation's statewide golden eagle census, we happened to find a pair of burrowing owls that raised a family in a small shelter cave in northern Lake County.)

The relationship between badgers and burrowing owls can best be described as "strained." While the badger, given the opportunity, builds the nesting cavity, they also will dig out the owls and eat them. But the clever little owls have come up with a solution to blind-siding badgers as to whether the burrow is occupied or not. When the owl moves in, they place several cow pie (or elk) chips in front of the entrance to mask the odor of their presence which confuses badgers; well, most times.

In an attempt to make up for the missing badger holes, Man has stepped up to the plate and slammed out a homer in the form of a nesting box. The box is buried in the ground, topped off by a 5-gallon plastic bucket for a roof (for easy access to band the babies and otherwise see what's going in down below). The entrance from the surface to box is a length of 6-inch flexible sewer pipe, and the finishing touch is a deposit of semi-fresh cow manure alongside the opening on the surface. Works like a charm...

Before the invasion of Europeans into South and North America, burrowing owls could be found nesting in just about every flat piece of land without trees from Canada to Argentina, including some Caribbean islands. Today, the little owls are losing ground in North America because of loss of habitat, farming and other factors, but gaining ground in South America because of deforestation (which is contributing to climate change).

Because of this wide distribution, there are over 22 recognized subspecies of burrowing owls fluttering about both continents—some are stay-at-homes (like those nesting in central California and Florida), while others are great travelers that migrate to Mexico from summer nesting grounds in Canada and northern U.S.

Here in Central Oregon, a newly discovered nesting pair of burrowing owls will make it to the headlines of OBOL (Oregon Birders On Line), they are that rare. The nesting pair at the Brothers Oasis was killed by an accidental poisoning for ground squirrels, and the other pair that I know of nesting between Silver Lake and Fort Rock in Paulina Marsh was used for target practice by some knucklehead who just had to shoot something.

Because of owls' rarity, most people I know who discover a nesting site will keep it under their hats to protect the owls from being, "loved to death" — something ill-informed "birders" will do without realizing the consequences of their actions.

A few years back, I took up the invitation of the powered parachute people and conducted a search for burrowing owls around Christmas Valley in northern Lake County. We located three nests in an area covering about 300 square miles; which is a very low figure.

If you ever come across an active burrowing owl nesting site, keep it under your hat, but on the other hand, "Officialdom" should know of it and keep tabs on it. The best way to do that is to contact Simon Wray at the Oregon Department of Wildlife in Bend: Simon Wray, Conservation Biologist, 541 633-1116, email: Simon.n.wray@state.or.us.

Oh, yes, and be warned: Burrowing owls have been known to bop you on the head if you violate their comfort zone; be polite.

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