As shown by its winning the 2013 Bird of the Year designation, the Burrowing Owl is a favorite California bird. Unfortunately, the Burrowing Owl has been designated a Species of Special Concern, mostly due to threats to habitat from agriculture and development. The Burrowing Owl finds its home in dry open areas with low vegetation, sometimes in vacant properties along the urban and surburban edges where bird enthusiasts delight in watching them. However, it is exactly this type of habitat is often targeted for development, putting the Burrowing Owl in a precarious position. A number of local populations have declined in recent years, mostly due to the conversion of their habitat to other uses. While a number of Audubon chapters are working to protect Burrowing Owls in their local areas, Audubon California has been directly involved in safeguarding their habitat as the state maps out zones for solar power development in the southeastern part of California. In particular, Imperial County is a Burrowing Owl hot spot. It is estimated that 70 percent of the state’s population and 50 percent of the U.S. population breeds in the county’s irrigation district!
Audubon California is providing oversight to The Burrowing Owl Stewardship and Education Fund for the district. Our goal is to foster projects that increase voluntary conservation actions for burrowing owls on private farmlands. The Burrowing Owl is a special species for many reasons, but perhaps the quality that makes it so compelling for Audubon to work with, is its response to conservation efforts. It is extremely adaptable and reacts positively to being relocated to man-made burrows.
This plucky raptor is the trigger species for wildlife protections at many California development projects. Other animals including mammals, raptors, and insects owe their population to the warning signs the Burrowing Owls sent would-be developers. Another area that the owl has become a bell-weather for is the Carrizo Plain, located 160 km north of Los Angeles. This remaining remnant of the historical San Joaquin Valley has been called the Serengeti of California due to its unmatched ecosystem. Audubon California is closely monitoring a proposed solar project in the area to make sure it won’t impact this area’s Burrowing Owl population or its other raptor populations (including newly introduced California Condors).
Burrowing Owls also call Audubon Bobcat Ranch home. This 6,800-acre property is an important conservation anchor within the Blue Ridge-Berryessa Natural Area in Yolo County. This living laboratory is used by Audubon and partners to research how to effectively run a working rangeland that improves its value as wildlife habitat for a variety of birds, including the Burrowing Owl.
With the attention this year’s Bird of the Year contest brought the “baked potato on legs” we can only hope for more opportunities to protect and save the Burrowing Owl in 2014.
Photo of Carrizo Plain by Damian Hopper/Flickr Creative Commons