Burrowing Owl: Icon of the Southwest
IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern
California Bird Species of Special Concern, western burrowing owl
Spotting burrowing owls is a difficult task. Weighing just 7 ounces and standing only 10 inches tall, these diminutive birds are one of the smallest owls in North America. They stay hidden in burrows excavated by ground squirrels and other species, making the sight of them an even rarer occurrence. But if we don’t look out for burrowing owls, these tiny treasures might vanish right before our eyes.
San Diego County is a biodiversity hotspot, home to hundreds of unique plants and animals like the burrowing owl. As human numbers in Southern California grow, burrowing owl populations shrink. The species has been drastically affected by increasing development throughout our region. With only a single breeding population just north of the US–Mexico border remaining, the western burrowing owl population in San Diego County is at risk of becoming locally extinct.
Systematic removal of burrow-digging mammals that create owl homes has put the birds at further risk. As people target animals that are viewed as pests, burrowing owls are left without a place to live. Loss of the native grasslands that support these owls further contributes to population declines.
Despite the barrage of threats facing the species, these tiny predators are fierce. Burrowing owls have a fighting chance at survival with the help of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and our conservation partners.
Saving burrowing owls requires a big team and big ideas. San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance collaborates with land and wildlife management agencies to restore suitable burrowing owl habitats. We also work with our partners to relocate burrowing owls to protected areas before new construction starts. Our conservation breeding program helps establish and supplement new local breeding populations.
While we view burrowing owls as a symbol of the Southwest region, our work doesn’t stop in San Diego: we collaborate with allies across the globe to assess burrowing owl genetics to aid in their conservation across the western hemisphere.
In the Field
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance scientists have learned a lot about the lives of individual owls and their families. We’ve watched these lively birds pair up with a mate (sometimes the same one year after year) and experience the multitude of struggles that come with raising a family. We’ve seen predators try to get a quick meal of the adult owls and their young, but have also seen the owls display their own predatory talents. As we watch adult owls successfully take care of their hatched chicks, we work to understand why other nests fail. What we learn about particular individuals and nests allows us to track the population status and trends throughout the region.
However, there’s still more to discover if we’re to save the species. Remote cameras, burrow scopes, and colored leg bands—as well as mini backpacks with GPS satellite technology—are enabling us to better understand burrowing owl movement patterns, survival, and reproductive success after translocation. Our conservation team continues to investigate nesting success, predation and other causes of mortality, and prey and habitat needs. “Wildlife agencies need these scientific data to better conserve the burrowing owl,” says Colleen Wisinski, M.S., conservation program specialist at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.
Our team of scientists can’t do this work alone. Hundreds of community scientists around the world join us from their own homes to provide crucial assistance, as they view and classify hundreds of thousands of remote camera photos online at our Wildwatch Burrowing Owl project on Zooniverse, the largest online platform for crowdsourced volunteer research.
Burrowing owl families at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are helping to prevent local extinction through a burrowing owl conservation breeding and release program. Their chicks represent new hope for a species whose population is in decline. Thanks to a live web camera, the public is able to watch the entire progress of the nest—from eggs, to chicks, to fledglings. As they watch, we hope they are inspired to join us in giving this species the bright future it deserves.