Burrowing Birds

Zoo Intern Quest 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 jobs, and then blog about their experience online.  Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

Did you know that burrowing owls are one of the cutest creatures on earth? Well, in my opinion, anyway. So imagine my delight when I found out that the Applied Animal Ecology Research Coordinator we were meeting, Colleen Wisinski, gets to work with these animals! She told us all about these fluffy marvels of nature….

Ms. Wisinski has had several different conservation-related jobs, including wildlife/habitat research in Argentina and whooping crane reintroduction in Wisconsin and Florida. Today, she works on researching and conserving western burrowing owls in San Diego.

Ms. Wisinski has had several different conservation-related jobs, including wildlife/habitat research in Argentina and whooping crane reintroduction in Wisconsin and Florida. Today, she works on researching and conserving western burrowing owls in San Diego.

Burrowing owls are (unsurprisingly) owls that live in burrows. They mostly eat bugs and small mammals, but they are opportunistic feeders that tend to take what they can get. Also, they are adorable. Two subspecies of burrowing owl can be found in the United States, but the western burrowing owl (which lives all over the western half of North America) has become scarce in San Diego. Ms. Wisinski and her colleagues at the San Diego Institute for Conservation Research are currently monitoring and conserving the burrowing owl population here.

Burrowing owls are (unsurprisingly) owls that live in burrows. They mostly eat bugs and small mammals, but they are opportunistic feeders that tend to take what they can get. Also, they are adorable. Two subspecies of burrowing owl can be found in the United States, but the western burrowing owl (which lives all over the western half of North America) has become scarce in San Diego. Ms. Wisinski and her colleagues at the San Diego Institute for Conservation Research are currently monitoring and conserving the burrowing owl population here.

Camera traps, like this one, are placed near the entrance of a burrow to photograph the owls. They are motion activated and take three pictures each time its triggered, so it’s no surprise that more than 1.8 million pictures have accumulated. With the help of volunteers, at least 1.5 million of these have been processed.

This picture is an actual camera trap photo Ms. Wisinski uses in one of her blogs at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Conservancy site. Clearly pictured here is the California ground squirrel burrow the owls call home. The squirrels are essential to the survival of burrowing owls. In spite of their name, the owls cannot actually dig burrows for themselves. They have to borrow a squirrel’s burrow, kicking them out for a time while the owls raise their young. But if the squirrels are gone, the burrow falls into disrepair.

This picture is an actual camera trap photo Ms. Wisinski uses in one of her blogs at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Conservancy site. Clearly pictured here is the California ground squirrel burrow the owls call home. The squirrels are essential to the survival of burrowing owls. In spite of their name, the owls cannot actually dig burrows for themselves. They have to borrow a squirrel’s burrow, kicking them out for a time while the owls raise their young. But if the squirrels are gone, the burrow falls into disrepair.

Several of the owls caught on camera have been banded and can be definitively identified. Each bird has a unique letter, number, and color combination.

Several of the owls caught on camera have been banded and can be definitively identified. Each bird has a unique letter, number, and color combination.

Whether taking blood samples or banding the birds, sometimes Ms. Wisinski needs to have physical contact with the western burrowing owls. This temporary holding unit ensures that the owls are safe from predators until she can come into contact with them.

Whether taking blood samples or banding the birds, sometimes Ms. Wisinski needs to have physical contact with the western burrowing owls. This temporary holding unit ensures that the owls are safe from predators until she can come into contact with them.

Pictured above is an example of San Diego’s grassland and the reality is it’s in trouble. Over the years, people have built over most of it because the land is flat and easy to build on. Much of what is left has been invaded by non-native grasses, which grow taller and create a more difficult environment for the burrowing owls to live in. Since the owls depend on the grasslands to survive, they are in trouble.

The western burrowing owls are just one part of a larger ecosystem, though. A healthy habitat for the owls includes predators like coyotes and prey such as insects. Most importantly for the owls, this habitat also includes the California ground squirrels.  As well as digging their burrows, the ground squirrels are like mini lawnmowers, keeping the grass short enough for the owls. (It’s hard to get around in tall grass if you’re only a few inches tall!)

The western burrowing owls are just one part of a larger ecosystem, though. A healthy habitat for the owls includes predators like coyotes and prey such as insects. Most importantly for the owls, this habitat also includes the California ground squirrels. As well as digging their burrows, the ground squirrels are like mini lawnmowers, keeping the grass short enough for the owls. (It’s hard to get around in tall grass if you’re only a few inches tall!)

And thus everyone posed for the group photo at the end of our visit with Ms. Wisinski!

And thus everyone posed for the group photo at the end of our visit with Ms. Wisinski!

Sabrina, Photography Team
Week Three, Winter Session 2014

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