Girl with a lap-full of Burrowing Owls. Now, how does one happen to find oneself in such a delightful predicament?
Well, it was 2007 and I had applied to a field position (“bird job” if you wanna use the cool insider lingo) helping with research on the population trends of these jaunty, intense little owls set atop stilt legs. We worked under biologist Vicki Garcia at the University of Arizona. The study was part of a multi-year project looking at changes in migration and range based on food availability.
The work consisted of searching out nesting owls on Department of Defense lands and trapping them in an effort to collect blood and feather samples which would later be analyzed at the university. The idea was to determine if birds were changing their range as a result of food availability. Normally, birds in the more northern latitudes would migrate south in the winter when insects populations fall off with the onset of cold weather. What the thought was, however, was that with increases in agriculture in southern states like Arizona, that the younger birds would find plenty of insects available in their winter habitat and remain there instead of flying back north in the spring.
This was my fourth bird job since college, having worked with a variety of seabirds in Maine, smooth-billed anis in Puerto Rico and warblers in Canada. But, while this was my first time working with raptors, I found these owls utterly unintimidating, as you might be able to tell from the above photo. Burrowing owls are unique in the world of raptors, with their abnormally long legs and their behavior of nesting underground. Of all the owls, these are the only ones that you will hardly ever find perched in a tree. Rather, they live out in open, short-grass areas including deserts, grasslands, and shrub-steppe. Their long legs perhaps evolved to give them extra height to make up for the lack of high perches to help them see across long distances.
I’d never seen a burrowing owl in real life until this job. Even knowing I was looking straight at my very first one, it took me a moment to discern the marbled brown and white plumage of the bird from the sloping earth of the wash. A second camouflaged shape appeared next to it, a pair. The two owls stood by their burrow, just as entirely aware of us as we were of them, their piercing yellow eyes boring into me. On silent wings, the birds seem almost buoyant in flight, flapping softly like moths, flying above the open plains in a hunt for grasshoppers, mice and kangaroo rats.
Burrowing owls are considered threatened in New Mexico and Colorado and are a designated species of special concern in Florida as well as several other western states. Much of that is attributed to a decline in suitable habitat as a result of development. As it so happened, the project had an agreement with military and air force bases that we’d do our fieldwork on their lands, seeing as how many of these sites were perfectly suited for the kind of habitat burrowing owls require: wide open grasslands with scattered sagebrush along with plenty of grasshoppers and mice for the feasting. Most of these locations were huge open expanses of land that were reserved as training grounds. While much of this, in a way, was removed from humans, we also found ourselves trapping owls burrowing on the grass median between fighter jet landing and takeoff strips. We wore ear protection, but who knows if the owls could hear anything at all! They didn’t seem bothered. Perhaps they’d reasoned that deafening jets whizzing by perhaps deterred predators like coyotes, but who knows?
Since the study included the entire range of burrowing owls, I, along with two other field technicians, bounced around between bases located throughout Colorado, California, Idaho and Utah. We split up and I got my own monstrous Ford Bronco which I drove out into the enormous, empty ranges in search of owls. I’d scout out birds while it was still light and determine where the burrows were located and marked them with GPS points. I’d return later to trap the birds as they began to hunt along with the setting sun.
I admit, it was very interesting working on the bases. In addition to giving our identities (i.e. social security number) so freely to the armed forces of the United States just to walk around and study birds, we were also given–at every base–the obligatory rundown of the threat of unexploded ordinances still scattered who knows how haphazardly out across the land: The duds..or so I prayed. I remember my heart stopped and my body turned to instant ice one night when I was walking around the desert looking for owls and suddenly felt my leg snag on a wire in the dirt. The taut line trailed from my ankle to disappear beneath the earth, attached to who knows what. I slooooowly let the tension loose expecting this moment to be my very last. And yet, here I am. How my heart started beating again after that, I’ll never know.
My monstrous, trusty white Bronco and I travelled up and down Colorado’s Rt.25 to visit Fort Carson Air Force Base, Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Pinion Canyon Manuever Site over the course of the owl’s nesting season. This way we could trap the parents early in the summer and return later when the chicks were hatched and grown enough to be processed and banded. Our goal at each new station was to find owl nests, relocate those knowns from previous years that were currently active, trap birds, band them, take blood and feather samples, measure wing chord and tarsis and observe for mites, deformities or injuries.
Capturing the birds took skill, with different methods for the male versus female in that the more retiring female tends to retreat back into the safety of her burrow when approached to protect her eggs or young while the male chooses to fly away and stand watch nearby, irritated by the intrusion. For the female, we set a rectangular box made of chicken wire and covered in burlap with inward-swinging one-way doors on each end. Setting one end against the burrow hole, you secure it with burlap cushioning so the hole is entirely blocked. The female inside the burrow will eventually attempt to leave the burrow after you move off a bit and will find the trap at the entrance. She can push through the hinged one-way door and not be able to emerge out of the opposite end since it can only swing inward. Here is where I stick my arms in this opposite door and gather my bird(s).
We’re always careful not to leave the birds in the traps too long and therefore only set a few traps at a time at nests close enough to each other to check frequently. I recall at Fort Carson I had my best catch: all seven fledgling birds, along with their protective mother had retreated into the hole when they saw me coming with the box trap. I gave it hardly any time at all before checking with a flashlight only to see more than a dozen yellow eyes peering back at me from the confines of the burlap trap. Mother and all! Luckily I’d been training the Bio crew there how to do owl work so they could continue to do it into the future, contributing to the research. So not only did I have photo proof, but I had an audience to vouch for me, it really happened! I still think it’s hilarious that the entire brood of babies were all so stunned at the world outside of the burrow that they simply stood quietly in my lap, unmoving except for their heads, looking curiously in every direction. Feathery fluff balls.
To trap the male owls, it’s harder because you’ve got to convince them to come back around after you’ve made your presence known, because they’re certainly not hiding in the burrow to protect whatever children. What draws this feathered predator back to the area is his prey. And we basically offer it on a silver platter…well, in a wire box: a scrumptious-looking mouse or gerbil. The box protects the rodent from injury and, when the bird lands on it, a trip wire that is attached to the cage looses a pin that instantly springs open a wire bow net overtop of the bird as it stands on its prey. It’s a harder trapping technique to succeed at but even more satisfying than the box trap when you nab one.
It also means I got to have gerbils as best friends for the summer! We found that mice tended to not do as well as the more hardy gerbil. Unfortunately the little guys don’t hold up well under seemingly near-death situations. Yes, we’re horrible people. So I went for gerbils instead! I made friends with a Biologist at Fort Carson who let me let them out in his living room. He came up with the names: Thunder for the yellow one and Lightening for the brown one with the streak across its forehead.
While the places I worked were on service lands, I certainly did feel like I was pretty well out in the wild on the job, for instance, the evening that involved war against canine: running after and shouting at coyotes from just a stone’s throw away as they warily-yet-brazenly approached the box traps I’d just set, having smelled the tasty bird inside. They were recognizing what I was doing and thought they could attempt a free meal in the form of a momma owl. Another time, I had a face-to-face with a badger that stood on its hind legs and, I sh*t you not, started dancing to the sun gods, paws raised high, body upright, writhing and swaying to some soundless rhythm.
I wasn’t quite sure what to think of that.
Of course, there was always the possibility of a cougar or rattlesnake, but I never was lucky enough to spot either. I did however finally see my first bobcat one night, but my excitement was temporary as it ran across my Bronco’s headlights down the dark dirt road, because I quickly remembered it was yet another predator that could easily take advantage of my birds. Luckily I didn’t have to run it off of any of my traps.
As far as smaller life on the land, the grasshopper and beetles were fat and plentiful and the owls made a good living off of them. You can sometimes see the proof when you come across a burrow that has been decorated with the shimmering exoskeleton of the creature that once was: legs, wings and carapaces of the dispatched insects scattered artfully around a hole in the dirt, perhaps a sign to the female owls that this male promises to feed her well if she agrees to share his burrow.
The summer spent with the burrowing owls is one I’ll always remember with special fondness. The birds are absolutely charming, fascinating, charismatic and simply gorgeous. Having a burrowing owl in the hand where you can observe the beauty of its dappled feathers and the softness of this small fierce predator is something I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to be a part of. The glow of those eyes, even in the middle of the night, is staggering. In the hand, they’re very docile. They’re not apt to bite and they don’t clutch you too painfully with their claws–although sometimes they get lucky and hit you right in the sweet spot of a nailbed. And I’m pretty sure that, as with every bird I let go over the course of that summer, they all know my face by heart as I’ve determined based on the soul-wrenching look they gave me just before I let them go.
I picture this face sometimes, just before I’m about to fall asleep…
But watching them in the evenings, you can see a silhouette of the silent hunters with their powdery moth wings, hovering above the ground staring intently until softly dropping onto their quarry. If you ever get to the open desert and grasslands out west, keep your eye out because you can guarantee they’ve already got you in their sights!
Below is an article from the Fort Carson Air Force Base newspaper on me and the fieldwork I was doing on their base that summer:
If you want to learn more about the research through the University of Arizona and Department of Defense lands, click here!
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more in the Pining for the Field series about my fieldwork with birds!
Tags: birds, burrowing owls, colorado, conservation, desert, developent, grasshoppers, grasslands, habitat, migration, Owls, raptors, sagebrush, university of arizona