Don’t Wanna Be Owl By Myself

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their job and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

laura_week4Many of the animals supported by San Diego Zoo Global are exotic species from faraway places, but have you ever thought about the animals in your own backyard? Take, for example, the western burrowing owl. These owls are fluffy, adorable, and rapidly disappearing from San Diego County. Habitat loss and human impact are driving these birds away. Colleen Wisinski, a Senior Research Technician in the Applied Animal Ecology Department at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research is working to collect data and ultimately restore burrowing owl populations. Through field research, Ms. Wisinski is able to translate her data into practices that support them in the wild.

So what is she finding out? Well, the bad news is that these little owls aren’t doing so well. In San Diego County, there were once almost 600 owls. Now, researchers can only find about 60, primarily concentrated in Otay Mesa. That’s a 90% population drop in only a couple decades! In addition to the loss of their grassland habitat due to humans, the most likely cause for this staggering decline is the extermination of ground squirrels. We usually consider squirrels to be a nusiance, but, in fact, these little critters are vital to burrowing owls’ survival. The ground squirrels construct deep and sometimes elaborate tunnel systems in the ground, which burrowing owls can then occupy as their own home. It’s kind of like the squirrels are the builders and the owls are the homeowners. But as the squirrels disappear, so do available burrows.

The good news is that these owls aren’t beyond hope. Their North American populations are still teetering above the “endangered” level in the US and Mexico. Burrowing owls have the benefit of being opportunistic feeders, which means they aren’t picky and usually find enough food to survive. They also have a high breeding potential, which means that they have a lot of babies at once, and maybe even multiple times per year.  To meet owls’ needs in areas without ground squirrels, researchers have begun making artificial burrows for the owls to call home. Artificial burrows often consist of irrigation piping and resemble the same shape and size as the owls’ natural homes. Research continues into the specific microclimates of successful burrows in order to optimize conditions and encourage owl families to move into a new home.

Here in San Diego, burrowing owls tend to be in close proximity with people. They have even been known to live in backyards or within close range of someone’s property. It’s important to respect them and understand that tampering with their homes has profound effect on the small population of owls left in San Diego. Ms. Wisinski suggests that we can all pitch in to help this struggling species in simple ways, such as keeping our pets, especially cats, indoors. Cats are natural predators and are known to destroy nests. As San Diego species continue to run out of room, we owe it to them to respect their habitat and do what we can to support their survival.

Laura, Real World Team
Week Four, Fall Session 2013