Burrowing owls have got to be one of the most adorable avians, being small, ground-dwelling owls with long legs, brown bodies speckled with white, and no ear tufts (Parks Canada, 2014). If you live in Kamloops, the probability of coming across one is quite high; they prefer flat, open, and sparsely vegetated terrain (Government of Canada, 2016), which Kamloops is notorious for. As the name suggests, burrowing owls tend to live underground in burrows that have been dug out by other small animals like ground squirrels, prairie dogs, or badgers.
Once, burrowing owls were abundant and a common sight on the grasslands. However, their populations have been steadily declining since the 1930’s – in 1979, they were first labelled as a threatened species, and in 1995, the status decline from threatened to endangered, facing possible extirpation and extinction (Parks Canada, 2014). The main cause of the burrowing owls decline is habitat loss via fragmentation and degradation of remaining grasslands. Grasslands are favorable for agriculture, and thus are disappearing at a frighteningly fast pace. Road kills, pesticides, food shortage, fewer burrow providers, and mortality on migration and wintering areas are other major factors contributing to the species’ decline (Parks Canada, 2014).
A study conducted by Clayton and Schmutz (2010) examined population and ecosystem patterns of burrowing owls in Alberta and Saskatchewan – including dispersal and survival – in hopes of informing conservation strategies in Canada (Clayton and Schmutz, 2010). By radio-tagging the owls, they found that they did not disperse nearly as much as expected for the populations. Limited dispersal was related to the highly fragmented agricultural landscape, increasing search time for both nesting sites and mates and also reducing dispersal success. In addition, where grassland patches were isolated in 90% cultivation, owls dispersed later, for shorter distances and less often (Clayton and Schmutz, 2010). During the study, mortality rate was high, which may have contributed to local declines in the areas. Mortality occurred during migration, winter, and with high predation rates. In this study, they found that ecosystem changes (plant succession, owl dispersion, and predation) was the major contributing factor to the high mortality rates in the burrowing owls (Clayton and Schmutz, 2010).
Both these dispersal and mortality rates are likely to be irreversible, and although the burrowing owl is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act, the species may face extinction in Canada. The public and industries need to become much more informed and involved. Otherwise, the burrowing owls may face an unfortunate fate which could have been potentially avoided.
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Clayton, K. & Schmutz, J. 2010. Is the decline of Burrowing Owls Speotyto cunicularia in prairie Canada linked to changes in Great Plains ecosystems?. Bird Conservation International, 9(2): pg 163-185. doi:10.1017/S0959270900002288
Government of Canada. [Internet]. Species at Risk Public Registry: Burrowing Owl [cited 2016 March 9]. Available from http://www.sararegistry.gc.ca/species/speciesDetails_e.cfm?sid=20
Parks Canada. [Internet]. Grasslands National Park of Canada: Burrowing Owls [cited 2016 March 9]. Available from http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/sk/grasslands/edu/edu1/b.aspx