As an animal keeper for the past 30 years at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, I’ve felt privileged to have worked with some of the world’s most fascinating and endangered species. Most of the species I work with come from Africa or Asia, but I am also acutely aware that we have species in our own back yard here in San Diego County that are also in peril.
I have recently learned that burrowing owls are becoming increasingly rare in the grasslands of our county and that our San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research is involved with a grasslands restoration project. This is good news, as I just had my first encounter with a burrowing owl in its natural habitat here at the Safari Park a few weeks ago.
As a keeper, I have made numerous trips to the Park’s manure dump over the years to empty my dump truck. With over 3,000 animal residents, you can imagine that we produce copious amounts of endangered species feces. Fortunately for us, a farmer in the San Pasqual Valley is happy to take all we can give him; he plows this rich material into his fields, where it nourishes his crops. I had heard other keepers mentioning seeing a little owl visible on the hillside next to our dump pile. I began to look for the owl every time I went to our dump pile but could not figure out which of the 30 or so squirrel burrows might be occupied by this owl.
Finally, with the help of another keeper, I was able to spot him (or her, I’m not sure of the gender!). Now that I know where to look, I see the burrowing owl on a regular basis. Often this little bird is hunkered down inside its burrow when I first drive by to dump my truck’s load. It comes out to check out the noise after I pass, so that when I return, it’s right in plain sight. I can pull up and stop right below it. You might think it would quickly back down into the hole, but it usually doesn’t. Sometimes it just stands there, and sometimes it crouches down and freezes. This is most likely a defense mechanism against predators. This eight-inch-high owl is mottled brown and tan and easily blends in with the dry vegetation surrounding its burrow. It stands out a bit more right now, because all of the rains have turned the usually brown vegetation bright green.
I’ll admit, visiting the manure dump is perhaps not the most glamorous (or appealing) part of my day, but knowing I may get another peek at this special little burrowing owl always gives me something to look forward to.
Gloria Kendall is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.