Burrowing owls released on First Nations reserve
By Bethany Lindsay, Vancouver Sun
Six chubby little burrowing owls were welcomed into the wild this weekend with drumming, singing and prayer as the Upper Nicola Band hosted its first reintroduction of the endangered birds.
Under sunny skies on Sunday morning, the three pairs of yearlings got their first glimpse of their new burrows on a reserve near Merritt, and apparently liked what they saw.
“The minute they see the hole, they shoot down it very, very quickly. It’s an instinctive behaviour,” explained Mike Mackintosh, president of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of B.C.
The small, yellow-eyed birds were all hatched in a captive breeding facility as part of a program that has been run by the conservation society for about a quarter century. In all, 65 burrowing owls will be reintroduced to the wild this year on properties from Kamloops through the Nicola Valley and into the south Okanagan.
Sunday’s ceremony marked the first time that a First Nation has partnered with the group to host the reintroduced birds
The release of the birds was a wonderful experience, according to the band’s cultural heritage project manager, Bernadette Manuel.
“It was really exciting to see our Chief Harvey McLeod release the first bird. It was not only exciting, it was kind of emotional for all community members that were present,” she said.
The partnership with Manuel’s band is a big step for the captive breeding program, Mackintosh said.
“They have some pretty spectacular habitat that we think and we believe will work very well for the owls in the future,” he said.
That includes plentiful insects and small rodents for the birds to eat.
But nobody’s taking any chance with the survival of the owls. They’ll be “locked in” for the first 24 hours to familiarize themselves with their new homes, and then two band members will monitor their burrows regularly and provide some supplemental food.
The hope is that the young birds will also work together to stay safe.
“These are quite social birds,” Mackintosh said.
“When they’re all together like this, they provide a bit of … an early warning system for each other. If a hawk or another predator is approaching and one of the other owls sees it, they can set up a ruckus and everybody will dive for cover.”
The real challenge, however, will come in the fall, when the birds will set off on their annual migration south to Washington, Oregon and perhaps even California.
“The birds that we band here have been located as far south as San Diego. That’s a very, very long and dangerous trip,” Mackintosh said.
The goal of the program is to boost the birds to high enough numbers that they can breed and replenish the population naturally, without any human help. The true measure of the birds’ success will be whether they can produce chicks and make the long journey south and back.
Last year, a record 60 birds from the breeding program made it back to B.C. for the summer. So far this year, 40 returnees have been identified, and more are expected.
But just because the birds haven’t returned doesn’t mean they didn’t survive. Some just seem to prefer life on the other side of the border.
“We have found evidence of several birds that have migrated south but just choose not to return. They just take up American citizenship,” Mackintosh said.
That includes one of the oldest burrowing owls ever found in the wild, the nine-year-old offspring of two captive-raised parents, that apparently opted to settle down somewhere near San Jose, California.