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NMSU researchers ask: have you seen this owl?

The burrowing owl has been expanding its habitat and researchers at New Mexico State University are asking the public to help them locate nests so they can learn more about the creature's nesting grounds in the local area.

A student holds a burrowing owl. Its chest rests on his index finger and its feet are held between his middle finger and thumb.
This is a juvenile burrowing owl with an aluminum band that identifies the bird with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a yellow tracking band that can be read without the bird having to be captured. (NMSU photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

The bird in question is brown in color and usually about nine inches tall. Martha Desmond, head of NMSU's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology, said the burrowing owls are usually fairly visible, will perch on walls and fence posts or sometimes lurk under sidewalks, drainages and irrigation canals. While the birds are most active at night, they can frequently be seen during the day.

"They often nest in recently disturbed locations and are associated with new developments like the Sonoma Ranch area," Desmond said. "People don't realize these owls nest underground in burrows and sometimes they get bulldozed over."

Local researchers are interested in the burrowing owl because although it is native to grasslands, populations have increased in the south over the last few decades, particularly in human dominated environments.

The owls have been spotted in green spaces like golf courses and parks and in highly erodible areas and drainage ponds. The birds may even be discovered in places like old sheds or underneath discarded concrete slabs.

The birds' movement into these new habitats means they are confronted with new dangers including having nests unintentionally destroyed by construction activity, loss of foraging habitat, and increased road mortality.

In the wild, the burrowing owl relies on other animals like rock squirrels, prairie dogs or badgers to create burrows for shelter. The owl then uses the spaces the squirrels or other animals have excavated and lines them with dung or debris to make a nest.

In urban areas, the owls often collect trash like tin foil and plastic foam to line their nests. The nests may look like random bits of garbage to a passing viewer but in reality, the debris has been carefully collected and arranged by the owls. The adult male is usually visible nearby, guarding the nest.

"Burrowing owls have a long nesting period and lay a clutch of approximately eight eggs which they incubate for a month. It is an additional 42 days before the youngsters are capable of flight," Desmond said. "It's important to document the nesting areas because the adults will often utilize the same nest site the following year, and sometimes spend the winter there as well."

Desmond said that while there has been a sharp decline in burrowing owl populations in their historical nesting areas in the northern Great Plains, their populations in the Southwest have been fairly stable, in part due to the birds' population increases in agricultural and urban environments. However, researchers do not fully understand why populations are increasing in these areas, nor do they fully understand the threats that these populations may face.

When the bird chooses to nest in a construction area, it is obviously dangerous to the animal but this also means individuals must be careful because the burrowing owl is a protected species. It is a federal offense to harm the birds, keep them as pets, collect their eggs or disturb a burrow the owl is using.

In an effort to protect the burrowing owl, the city of Las Cruces is collaborating with NMSU to create burrowing owl management areas on city property where owls nest. Desmond said this has been an excellent partnership that helps protect the birds and helps students learn about practical conservation efforts.

Nests on city properties have been mapped and are monitored. Owl management areas have been designated by the city and NMSU wildlife students are receiving hands-on training in their field of study.

"As part of this project, we are installing artificial burrows in areas with high disturbance in order to encourage the birds to occupy areas away from human activity," Desmond said.

Eggs in nest burrows are counted through the use of small cameras called peeper probes that are mounted on 12 feet of flexible tubing. Researchers will also track the fledglings once they are able to fly.

"This year, I have a graduate student, Eboni Duke, who is putting small 3.2 gram radio transmitters on young birds when they are near the age of independence in order to monitor juvenile survival after they leave the nest," Desmond said.

Juvenile mortality for most wildlife is usually high, but may be greater in urban environments. Researchers are interested in determining major causes of mortality in human-dominated landscapes and are also interested in how the landscape matrix around the nest influences owl movement patterns and dispersal from the nest.

"This is where we could use the help of the public. We need to locate more nesting areas and nests across a gradient of disturbance from mainly green space to highly urbanized spaces," Desmond said. "We would greatly appreciate information from the public related to owls and nests that they may be aware of."

Desmond encourages anyone who has seen the burrowing owl or its nest to contact Duke, her graduate research assistant, via email at eboni.duke@yahoo.com or via phone at 256-603-1711. Sightings can also be reported to NMSU's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology at 575-646-1544.