Settling into a new home can be tough for anyone. So scientists have come up with some tricks to make relocated burrowing owls feel like they are not alone in their new digs*, playing owl sounds and scattering fake poop.
The American owls’ grassland homes are often prime real estate, and they’ve been losing ground to property development in fast-growing regions like Silicon Valley and southern California.
Biologists* have tried moving the owls to protected grasslands but the challenge has been getting the owls to accept their new homes.
Just dropping off the owls in prime habitat wasn’t enough, prior attempts showed. In a pilot program*, scientists went to great efforts to create the impression that owls already lived there so they’d stick around. And it worked.
“They like to be in a neighbourhood, to live near other owls,” said Colleen Wisinski, a conservation biologist at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, which launched the experiment with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The scientists played recordings of owl calls before and after the new arrivals were released at four locations in southern California. And Ms Wisinski used a syringe to squirt around fake owl poop – which was actually just white paint.
Their results were published on January 27 in the journal Animal Conservation.
Burrowing owls are the rare extroverts* of the raptor* world. These long-legged owls with slightly cross expressions actually love company. They nest in underground burrows with many owls nearby.
Such colonies provide protection from predators, such as coyotes or hawks, that may try to snack on the small, yellow-eyed owls. When one owl sounds an alarm, the others fly away.
Federal law in the US prohibits* the killing of the birds but their habitat is not protected. Typically, they are flushed from their burrows before properties are built.
“If after eviction* there’s nowhere for these guys to go, it’s basically a death sentence,” said Lynne Trulio, a San Jose State University ecologist* who has studied burrowing owls for three decades but was not part of this study.
The population of western burrowing owls – the subspecies* that lives in California – has declined by one-third since 1965. It is considered a “species of special concern” in the state.
For their experiment, the scientists relocated 47 burrowing owls during 2017-2018. Twenty were fitted with GPS devices to track their movements, and the scientists also returned to the sites to check on them.
Most successfully settled into their new homes and established breeding colonies. At the primary site in southwestern San Diego County there were about 50 owl chicks in 2020.
The researchers also monitored owls that were left on their own to find new homes. Those owls didn’t do as well.
“These scientists are leading the pack in advancing our understanding of how to relocate burrowing owls,” said David H Johnson, director of the Global Owl Project, who was not involved in the study.
- digs: a slang word for home
- biologists: scientists who studies living things
- pilot program: a trial or test to see if the program works
- extroverts: outgoing and confident around others
- raptor: bird of prey
- prohibits: prevents
- eviction: forced to leave
- ecologist: scientist who studies the relationship between living things and their environment
- subspecies: a group within a species
- Why are burrowing owls being forced out of their homes?
- Along with scattering fake owl poop, what else did scientists do to make the owls feel at ease in their new homes?
- Where do these owls they make their nests?
- How many owls were relocated for the experiment?
- How many of them were fitted with GPS devices?
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1. Burrowing Owl Facts
Sketch a picture of the burrowing owl from the pictures in the article. Around your sketch, write all the facts you learned about this type of owl from reading the article. Be as detailed as you can. Present your sketch and facts on an A4 piece of paper to share with the people on your table.
Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Visual Arts, Science
If this method of tricking the owls into thinking other owls already live in their new habitat works, what other species might it work for?
How could the burrowing owl be more protected so they are not evicted from their homes so easily?
Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and creative thinking
Imagine you were there when the scientists were scattering the fake owl poop, or for the interview with the scientists.
Create a conversation between you and one of the scientists. Don’t forget to try to use facts and details from the article to help make your dialogue as realistic as possible.
Go through your writing and highlight any punctuation you have used in green. Make sure you carefully check the punctuation used for the dialogue and ensure you have opened and closed the speaking in the correct places.