Burrowing Owls return to the Okanagan
When I was in high school the kid next door was not the type I thought would ever look at birds. He raced around the native grasslands south of our house in his home-made dune buggy, making a lot of noise and undoubtedly doing the delicate bunchgrass habitat no good. But one day in the spring of 1970 he mentioned a little owl he saw while on his dune buggy adventures—an owl that dove down a hole when he roared by. We immediately walked out to the site—only a few hundred metres from our house—and there was a Burrowing Owl, the first we’d ever seen in our neighbourhood. Surprised and somewhat chagrined by not finding the owl before our neighbour, we nevertheless began regular watches and soon realized there were two owls at the burrow—a nesting pair! In the middle of June, five young owls appeared at the burrow entrance; four weeks later they were making short flights. We last saw them at the burrow on October 1st. This was the last natural nest of Burrowing Owls found in the British Columbia interior. The next year no owls returned to the burrow, and in 1972 a single owl stayed for a week or two in May before disappearing.
Burrowing Owls were once common in the dry grasslands of the southern Interior of British Columbia, but their numbers declined rapidly when Europeans arrived in the area in the latter half of the 1800s. In 1909, E. P. Venables of Vernon wrote: “…sometimes in the evening the call note may still be heard, but it comes from a long distance, and it is a rare sound.” In the 1980s the BC Ministry of Environment began a reintroduction program for Burrowing Owls, bringing families in from Washington and releasing them in sites north of Osoyoos Lake. At first the program seemed successful, as birds migrated south in the fall and some returned in the spring, but when the active releases stopped in 1990 the numbers of breeding birds dropped quickly, and the last bird was seen in 1995.
To avoid the need to import wild owls from south of the border a new program was started—owls would be raised in captivity in British Columbia and released to the wild after suitable training. The Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC was formed and began an ambitious, long-term program led by director Mike Mackintosh. Once the program was going full steam, it was releasing over 100 young owls into the Thompson-Nicola area each year. Lacking wild parents, these young birds were less adept at figuring out the migration habits that are necessary for Canadian Burrowing Owls, so the number returning in spring was lower than with the wild family release program. But they raise plenty of “wild” young every year and there is renewed optimism that this amazing effort will eventually result in a self-sustaining population of Burrowing Owls in British Columbia.
Today I played a small part in this incredible saga of conservation. I met Mike and his gang of volunteers at a new facility built especially for Burrowing Owls at the South Okanagan Rehabilitation Centre for Owls (SORCO) near Oliver. Jim Wyse, the founder of Burrowing Owl Estate Winery and one of the enthusiastic funders of the project, was part of the work party. I was greeted by Pilot, the non-releasable mascot of the local program, giving enthusiastic “cu-coooo” mating calls from his flight cage. We drove to a private ranch in the south end of the valley, bouncing along rough tracks, then hiking up over a hill into a secluded valley nicknamed Badger Flats where some of this year’s releases would take place. We had eight owls with us, and plenty of shovels.
The shovels were needed to dig artificial burrows for the owls. No owls build their own nests, and Burrowing Owls are no exception. Normally, they use burrows made by mammals such as badgers or ground squirrels, but these animals have declined drastically in the dry grasslands of southern BC. So Mike and his team dig burrows each year, placing nest-buckets and plastic drain pipes in them to provide long-lasting homes for the owls. Digging a burrow in the stony soil is hard work—and luckily much of it had been done the day before so I got off lightly. The reward at the end is hard to beat, though; watching two fierce little owls being released into each burrow. For the next two weeks, Lauren Meads, the Okanagan coordinator for the program, will feed the owls to ease them into the wild. Then they will be on their own, and each pair will hopefully bring more young Burrowing Owls into these grasslands.