Volunteers, researchers and a little owl come together with a dose of Tunnel Vision

By Jim Ward for The Observer March 16, 2012 02:07 pm

A young burrowing owl receives a geo-locator backpack, which will monitor the birdís movements for two years. To date, 341 owlets have been banded at the depot. Fifty-three have received the locaters. JAMES REBHOLZ photo
A young burrowing owl receives a geo-locator backpack, which will monitor the birdís movements for two years. To date, 341 owlets have been banded at the depot. Fifty-three have received the locaters. JAMES REBHOLZ photo

 

Some people have tunnel vision.  Of course, that can really limit one’s point-of-view, unless you’re talking about burrowing owls.

Burrowing owls are a dove-sized raptor. They prefer arid, sagebrush-scrub and grassland areas and, as their name implies, live in burrows. They don’t make the burrows themselves, but move into abandoned badger and ground squirrel holes. 

 

Burrowing owls aren’t doing so well in the western United States. They’re listed as endangered in Canada and a Bird of Conservation Concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The little owls need undisturbed land that isn’t cultivated and has plenty of small rodents and insects to feast on –-- their favorite prey. These owls move mostly at night, but spend a good deal of time foraging during the day. 

Historically, much of the arid west had suitable habitat for the small birds. Cultivation and the reduction of badgers and other tunnel-diggers put the owl populations on a downward spiral.

The Umatilla Chemical Depot, near Hermiston, once had a decent population of burrowing owls. Surveys in the 1980s revealed 30 plus pairs on the depot. Then, a trapping program designed to ease coyote predation on a resident herd of pronghorns unintentionally took out the resident badgers as well. 

Enter Don Gillis. Gillis (just retired) was the Natural Resources Programs Manager for the U.S. Army’s Chemical Depot.

Gillis knew the depot’s 18,000 acres was prime burrowing owl habitat, but surveys in 2008 revealed only three to four pairs in this enormous area.

He contacted David Johnson for some ideas. Johnson is the director of Global Owl Watch, an international organization of researchers and managers working in 65 countries on the science and conservation of all owl species. 

When Johnson heard about the depot situation he came to investigate. 

Between Johnson and Gillis, they soon figured out the most likely problem.

“No badgers, no badger holes, no burrowing owls,” Johnson summed it up simply.

Mike Gregg and James Rebholz of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with a touch of tunnel vision themselves, joined the team.

Soon, annual volunteer events were coordinated and people from across the country came to the depot to install artificial burrows on the depot lands.

In 2009, the owl population doubled to nine pairs. More burrows were installed and, in 2010, the population grew to 32 pairs.

In the spring of 2011, the depot’s burrowing owl population skyrocketed to 61 pairs.  Last fall, 44 more burrows were installed and are awaiting occupancy this coming spring.

Everyone connected with this project has truly been amazed at the response to the artificial burrows – referred to as owl condominiums by the project leaders.

Madison Young, left, and Seth Hargett, right, recently joined other La Grande area youths in backfilling a burrowing owl structure on the Rob Gregory property near the La Grande airport. Four structures were installed.  JIM WARD photo
Madison Young, left, and Seth Hargett, right, recently joined other La Grande area youths in backfilling a burrowing owl structure on the Rob Gregory property near the La Grande airport. Four structures were installed. JIM WARD photo
 

The burrows consist of a 55-gallon plastic drum cut in half. The drums were donated by Tree Top Inc., a juice company in Washington. A half-drum makes up the nest chamber and a 10-foot length of 6-inch drain pipe provides the tunnel.

All of this is buried. The drums make up the nest chamber and the tubing provides access from the surface.

Each pair gets two structures. One is used by the female to nest and rear her young. The other is used by the male for caching food and, later on, can provide an escape burrow for the young in case the nest chamber is ambushed by predators. 

To date, 341 young burrowing owls have been banded at the depot site.

Reaching into the artificial nest chambers requires a bit of muster. “It can be a little unnerving,” said James Rebholz.

In regions where rattlesnakes are present, young burrowing owls have developed a unique way of discouraging predators –- they make a sound just like that of the snake. And the adults often line their nests with cow dung to help disguise nesting odors and further discourage predation. 

To get a handle on migration patterns and other important data, geo-locators were attached to the backs of 53 adult owls. These devices weigh a little less than a nickel and measure ambient light to give the owl’s location.

The hard-wired birds have moved quite a bit since they received their little backpacks. One left the depot in late summer and bee-lined it to Las Vegas in just a couple of months. The bird spent the winter in Nevada and returned to the depot the following spring.

“We expected the birds to migrate a little –- potentially as far as Mexico,” Johnson said. “The tracking devices have been working well and are giving us a lot of valuable information about the bird’s movements.”

All those involved with the project are looking forward to next spring. Of the 159 burrows in place, the birds should have a good choice of real estate to settle in.

Johnson is optimistic about the results of all the hard work put into this project. 

“The depot is becoming a source population, producing birds that will move to other areas,” he said. “But, even with the depot’s incredible success, the burrowing owl’s total population is declining by about 1.5 percent each year in Oregon and Washington.”

He added, “If we can at least stabilize the bird’s numbers in the west, through success at the depot, our efforts will be greatly rewarded.”

All in all, the Umatilla Chemical Depot is a fairly quiet place.

But, that’s going to change next spring when several hundred little owls begin courting each other with mating calls and fluttering wings.

Adding to the hum, researchers and volunteers will be clamoring to band owlets and attach little backpacks on their parents –- a rendezvous of birds and humans, with little in common but a good dose of tunnel vision.