Scientists Are Helping These Tiny Owls Find Homes


| LAST UPDATE 02/01/2022

By Hayden Katz
tiny burrowing owls habitat
KAREN BLEIER / Staff via Getty Images

West burrowing owls are typically removed by developers from their homes as it's a state law in California. Yet, sometimes they are unsure of how exactly to do so, and no one is aware of what happens to these owls when they are relocated. Now, researchers have studied the best ways to move the burrowing owls. Here's how.

Even though they are named burrowing owls, they don't actually burrow - instead, they actually borrow. Rather than digging up their own homes, these 10-inch tall owls settle in deserted burrows that were previously created by other animals such as prairie dogs or ground squirrels. These birds heavily rely on other mammals to create their living spaces. But over the years, nearly 95% of California's grasslands have been wrecked, leaving the burrowing owls without a habitat, as reported by Coleen Wisinski of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

burrowing owls animal habitats
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The customary way of relocating is called displacement or, as referred to by ecologists, eviction. Developers will wait until the owl isn't home and then destroy the area, leaving the long-legged bird without a place to stay the night. A second way of doing this is known as translocation, when researchers, like Wisinski, take a more hands-on approach. In other words, they take the owls to a safe area that is less likely to be destroyed by developers later on. While it may seem like the latter is the better option, it's actually not. Burrowing owls will fly right back to their former home even after being translocated. 

This problem has led researchers to search for new ways to keep the owls sheltered. Based on new research published in the journal Animal Conservation, there are two ways to persuade owls into accepting their new habitat. Firstly, by prerecorded owl calls and secondly, by painting the new burrows with some things resembling owl dung. Wisinski and colleagues found that the owls who were translocated and given both the visual and auditory signal were 20 times more willing to continue living in their new burrows than those owls who didn't receive the cues. "It's worth paying that initial survival penalty if it means we can get the owls established in a secure, protected area," explained Ronald Swaisgood, a recovery ecologist at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. "In the long run, that habitat will be managed for them, and they'll have better long-term prospects."

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