In Your Own Backyard

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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 jobs and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s Website.

tori_week3_picUsually when I think of an endangered species, I think of tigers and polar bears. You know, animals in other parts of the world, but not here in sunny San Diego. However, there are actually local species right here in our county that are endangered.

Here in San Diego County, there is a species of conservation concern called the western burrowing owl. Their population is decreasing mostly due to habitat loss by human encroachment, but a team from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research Applied Animal Ecology Division is trying to keep them far away from the brink of extinction. These burrowing owl populations used to be dispersed throughout southern California, but now they are mostly found on the southern end of San Diego County.

Interns met with Colleen Wisinski, a Research Coordinator with the Applied Animal Ecology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research who is working on increasing the western burrowing owl population. The western burrowing owls live in a grassland habitat and depend on the California ground squirrels to build out the burrows they occupy. Just because their numbers have decreased doesn’t mean their numbers can’t increase again, and the experts like Ms. Wisinski, are making it happen. One technique they use is camera trapping. A camera is set up near a burrow and takes three pictures when something moves in front of it. These images can give researchers a lot of information including: frequency of prey, human disturbance, reproductive success, and other wildlife in the area. This conservation team has made progress with the owl population but there is still a lot to do. The goals of this project are: increase reproduction rates, successful nesting, and help chicks survive.

As an adult, the western burrowing owl is about the size of your hand, and egg is about the size of a Ping-Pong ball. Aside from being really cute, why are they worth saving? These owls are a very important part of their ecosystem. An ecosystem is a group of organisms that rely on one another in a specific environment. Western burrowing owls live in grassland habitats along with bobcats, hawks, snakes, coyotes, prairie dogs, and ground squirrels. Burrowing owls are a predator and a prey in this environment. Therefore, they control the small mammal and insect populations as well as help the predator population. Unfortunately, burrowing owls don’t build their own burrows; they depend on the California ground squirrels to build the burrows for them and then they move in and occupy. If the western burrowing owl disappeared from their ecosystem, it would definitely suffer. The predator populations would decrease due to lower amounts of food in the area, and the rodent and insect populations would become abnormally high.

You don’t have to be a bird or habitat expert to help save these fascinating birds. One way is to just be aware of the native species in your area and understand that they are a valuable part of the ecosystem. You never know, some could be on the endangered list. It’s important to keep native habitats like the grasslands because it is home to many local plants and animals that are dependent on that specific environment for survival, just like the western burrowing owl.

Tori, Conservation Team
Week Three, Winter Session 2014