This Tiny Burrowing Owl Has A Big Problem In Southern California. What Will It Take For It To Thrive Again?
Every year in the fall, cartoonishly cute western burrowing owls, driven by their migratory instincts, fly South.
We’re losing more biodiversity across the planet than ever before in human history, with more than a million species facing possible extinction in the coming decades, according to the United Nations. Science reporter Jacob Margolis wants to know what the disappearance of species means for us here in Southern California.
Some will successfully make the long trip from places like British Columbia and Idaho all the way to Central America. Others will have the misfortune of passing through Southern California and landing in the Los Angeles basin.
As the sun rises, peregrine falcons perched on the edges of buildings will swoop down and scoop owls out of the sky. Cats will pick them off as they scramble for shelter in non-existent burrows in backyards. Some will get stuck in warehouses in industrial areas and starve to death. While others will simply be eviscerated by cars on Wilshire Boulevard.
“It's basically an ecological trap. They're flying in an area that they're programmed to cross over and they can't cross over it effectively,” said Peter Bloom, a biologist who's been studying burrowing owls and other raptors for decades.
Why the species is in decline
The perilous journey described encapsulates why populations of burrowing owls have been on the decline across much of California — and particularly coastal Southern California — for more than half a century. As development has spread, the wide open fields and ground squirrel holes they prefer to call home have steadily disappeared. This has left migrating owls few places to stop on their quests down south, and local breeding populations few places to safely put down roots.
“The future of burrowing owls throughout the West is bleak,” said Bloom. “There isn't a state that I'm aware of where burrowing owls are stable or increasing, so I don't see a positive future.”
Pernicious little hunters
The owls are tiny — about the size of two peaches stacked on top of each other, with long legs and big bright yellow eyes. They prefer grassland and desert habitats, but they can make homes in all sorts of wide open spaces with low-cut vegetation, as long as there are holes (animal or manmade) to nest in.
In between gobbling up all sorts of insects, frogs, lizards and even other birds, you’ll find them bobbing up and down with paranoid fervor at the entrance of their burrows, on the lookout for any predators that might be near. Skunks and weasels can always creep in, while hawks and great horned owls are waiting to pick them out of the sky.
If a predator gets too close, baby owls will sometimes make a defensive rattlesnake sound to scare them off.
If all goes well, the owls tend to live about eight years, hanging out in close knit communities, staying within about a mile of their nests to hunt. That said, it’s hard to go a mile in any direction here and not hit some sort of busy road, where they can easily be struck by cars.
Our search for the owls
Local breeding populations are all but gone from much of coastal Southern California, from Santa Barbara to San Diego, some of the most developed parts of the state. Although, this decline hasn’t happened fast. It’s been widespread knowledge that owl populations have been falling for decades and few efforts have been made to save them.
The wide open spaces full of ground squirrel holes that they need to thrive have largely been built over, and the squirrels themselves are seen as a nuisance and regularly gotten rid of. The owls will sometimes do well on land converted for agricultural use, but those areas have disappeared along coastal Southern California as well.
“It is really sad that in a nation and in a county as wealthy and smart as we are in L.A., Orange County, San Diego County, that this would've happened,” said Bloom during a recent interview at Fairview Park in Costa Mesa.
We’d just finished searching burrows for owls, hoping our photographer could capture some shots of them poking their heads up or flying around. Barry Nerhus had seen owls there a few weeks ago. He’s the principal ecologist with Endemic Environmental Services, which manages the natural resources at Fairview.
While we saw fresh owl poop and beetle carapaces around one hole, ultimately we got skunked. Nerhus said there was a decent chance we could find the owl, if we searched all 500 holes across the 200-plus acres. Although with winter on its way out, it’s possible that the owls were already on their way back up north.
While you might see an owl passing through Orange County once in a while, Bloom believes the local population of breeding owls is now completely gone from the area.
The disappearance was no secret
The last time he saw a resident pair of owls living in the county was back in 2015 at Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach, one of the last undeveloped areas there. It’s also where he’d been translocating owls in an effort to build up the population.
“The issue for that pair is that they were both females,” said Bloom.
“So in 2017 I went to count, there was only one bird and it perished that year. That was the last year that we saw any of the resident burrowing owls.”
Since then, he says he’s surveyed local birders, searched bird spotting databases, scoured academic papers and gone out into the field himself, all to no avail. As far as he knows, no one has seen resident owls there for more than five years. He’s written about their disappearance from Orange County in a paper that’s currently in press, set to be published in September 2023 in the Journal of Raptor Research.
It's very sad. I wish I could have done more.
“I grew up with this owl beginning in 1958, so I'm very familiar with where they were,” said Bloom. “The agencies: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish (and Wildlife), and State Parks, they're all aware that the burrowing owl was going down,” said Bloom.
“I confess, I kind of backed away from the idea of actively trying to conserve it because the difficulty of convincing the politicians and the landowners and the cost of the land was so difficult that trying to get people to preserve what is now Fashion Island or South Coast Plaza wasn't even on the charts. Why even bother?”
“It's very sad,” he said. “I wish I could have done more.”
What about state protections?
While they’re listed as an endangered species up in Canada, here they’re only listed as a Species of Special Concern — a designation that’s essentially an institutional acknowledgment that things aren’t going great for them. That they we should pay attention to them because it's possible they could end up endangered or even extinct.
While the designation offers some small protections and requires the owl be considered in environmental reviews, an Endangered Species Act designation takes things much further, generally requiring that all impacts to a species are fully mitigated.
Back in 2003, the Center for Biological Diversity and others, did try petitioning the California Fish and Game Commission to have the owls listed as endangered or threatened under the California Endangered Species Act, but that never happened.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife (at the time called the Department of Fish and Game) evaluated the petition, and informed the Commission that it did "not concur" with the petitioners recommendation. In part arguing that while populations of owls have declined in heavily developed areas, other places across the state, including the Imperial Valley, had substantial numbers of owls residing there.
“There is not sufficient information to support the contention that the WBO populations within California are either in danger of becoming extinct throughout all or a significant portion of their range or that the species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future in the absence of special protection and management efforts,” they wrote.
The last stronghold in California
To this day, the Imperial Valley is one of the last burrowing owl strongholds in California, which makes sense because it’s long gone undeveloped except for large-scale agriculture, a scenario in which owls can do OK.
The area accounts for roughly 70% of the nesting populations in the state, and as much as 50% of those across the Western U.S., according to a 2020 report by the California Department of Energy. According to that same report, the owl population there has declined by nearly 40% over the past 20 or so years.
“I would say it doesn't appear anything's gotten much better since 2003,” said Esther Burkett, senior environmental scientist with the California's Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In 2012, Burkett said, her department recognized that things were going downhill for the species and issued a report with management recommendations, hoping the situation would get better.
“They haven’t necessarily since that time,” she said.
“Since then the population has continued to decline, which means we lose a lot of genetic material. And when you lose genetic material, you're losing the ability for populations to adapt to changing circumstances, drought, and climate change.”
When asked whether she thought the owl should be considered for endangered species status, she demurred. It’s not ultimately hers — or one person’s — decision, after all.
She did say “it's very troubling” and that “it certainly warrants attention.”
Helping the owls
What are the odds that local populations of burrowing owls will make a comeback here?
It’s unlikely that undeveloped areas with a huge number of ground squirrel holes will appear out of nowhere in coastal Southern California. That said, there are pockets where the owls could potentially be reestablished, but they need help.
“They're actually relatively easy to breed, which is good news for them on the conservation side of things,” said Colleen Wisinski, conservation program manager with the burrowing owl recovery program at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.
“They do really well in the managed care setting here at the park because they can lay a lot of eggs in a given year as long as they have enough food to feed all of the chicks that hatch.”
The Wildlife Alliance is trying to help burrowing owls by developing artificial burrows in lieu of ground squirrel holes, relocating owls when needed, breeding them, and doing captive releases.
“We're really trying to kind of create these insurance colonies really to guard against them being completely removed from the county,” she said.
What it will take to bring them back
Peter Bloom said he thinks Wisinski and her colleagues are doing a good job, and that it’s plausible we could partially reestablish the owls in some of the counties they've been lost. But since the local breeding populations don't travel very far, there’s going to need to be a large number of colonies built up in any one place to really get things going.
“It’s all about managing land for grassland species. Purchasing those ranch lands or developing conservation easement on ranch lands. And then fund the San Diego Zoo and similar organizations to captive breed and release them. And we might have some success,” said Bloom.
The same goes for preserving owl habitat in the Imperial Valley.
“It's probably the last big chance to conserve the species, and that would likely ensure that we'd still have burrowing owls in 50 years in California,” he said.
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