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Burrowing owls returning to Nicola Valley

Aug 09. 16

By Michael Potestio, Merritt Herald

The first project reintroducing burrowing owls on to First Nations reserve land in B.C. is showing its first signs of success.

Back in April six of these endangered birds, which were raised in captivity, were released on the grasslands of the Upper Nicola reserve thanks to a collaborative effort between the band and the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC. Three males and three females were housed in artificial burrows, fed by human hand and monitored closely to aid in their transition into the wild. The goal was to see the birds learn to survive on their own and produce young.

In the months since their release, the owls are doing just that. While still being fed, the adults are also hunting and two of the couples have already produced young.

“This is significant, because [burrowing owls] were historically in that area,” said Dawn Brodie, who is a retired member of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC and consultant on this project.

Of the original six, two have since gone missing — most likely preyed upon by other animals Brodie tells the Herald.

Burrowing owls are prey for animals such as red tail hawks.

“We’re pretty excited just having [four] owls survive out there. That’s a milestone,” Brodie said, noting that 100 per cent survival is rare.

Despite that loss there was a huge gain for the project as less than a month after release a wild, female burrowing owl made its way into the nest site and bred with one of the captive raised males.

Brodie described the emergence of the wild owl as a reason to celebrate the suitability of the site.

How do they know it’s wild? The captive raised burrowing owls each receive two ID bands, one of which is coloured black and green to indicate they’re from British Columbia. This bird had no bands.

In total the owls have produced nine young — six from one clutch born in June and another three born from another clutch back on July 1.

Last Friday Brodie and some members of the Upper Nicola Band went out to the nest site to tag the now one-month old babies.

She said the first six — already tagged — are learning to fly at this point.

Hiking up the side of a grassy hill en route to burrow number one on a sunny day, Brodie spots an adult burrowing owls take flight, popping up from the yellow and green brush.

At the burrow, she and band’s field technician Loretta Holmes check to see if any of the babies are home. They use what is essentially a piece of sponge tied to the end of a tube to gently push the birds to the back of the burrow where Brodie can open a hatch and scoop them out.

The first burrow turns up nothing, but as the group goes door-to-door eventually they hear something — a loud hissing noise coming from within the burrow.

Is it a snake? No, but that’s what this pint-sized bird would want you to think. Burrowing owls make hissing noises to deter predators.

At a month old, these birds have a spot-on impersonation.

Three burrows turned up an owl each, and the birds are brought to an open area to get their identification bands on their legs. The birds are also weighed and have their leg length and wingspan measured.

Unlike most birds of prey, burrowing owls are known for spending most of their time on or near the ground, taking up residence underground in burrows abandoned by badgers or marmots.

“Grassland habitat that are part of some of the First Nations reserves are areas that they would highly favour in terms of opportunities to survive and to raise their young,” president of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC, Mike Mackintosh, told the Herald when the owls were released.

When it comes to hatching their young, the male does all the hunting while the female incubates the eggs, Brodie told the Herald.

“There’s a lot riding on him. He’s got to bring home all the groceries, and he has to be wary of predators out there,” Brodie said.

“Once the female incubates the eggs, she doesn’t even leave the burrow at all.”

Brodie said burrowing owl babies will grow from seven grams at hatching to 150 grams in a month.

Once hatched, both the female and male will hunt for food.

Burrowing owls have been known to live on the Upper Nicola reserve lands, but a survey conducted by the band in 2014 found no sign of these tiny birds.

They are disappearing from Canada as a result of habitat loss and environmental threats.

“Pesticides have been implicated in some of the losses that have occurred over time,” Mike Mackintosh told the Herald said. “The other thing about the birds in particular in British Columbia that works against them has been migration.”

In October these owls are expected begin their migration south, and the hope is they will return to the Nicola Valley.

There is interest across North America in burrowing owl recovery and strategies to reverse the current decline in populations, Brodie told the Herald. She said the addition of the Upper Nicola Band reintroduction site will aid in ensuring that burrowing owls are a part of the wildlife landscape for years.

This project is one the Upper Nicola Band has really taken under its wing.

“I’m so glad the band members are involved,” said Brodie. “They’re keen, they’ve put a lot of investment and resources into it and it’s been a pleasure. To see success in the first year cheers everyone on.”


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