Monday, January 13, 2014

Burrowing Owls whoo never went to University

Photo: Kathie Brown
Tucson, Arizona
I like Burrowing Owls too. But lately it just seems that everyone is on the save the Burrowing Owl bandwagon when it comes to News articles and blog posts. And that's kool too. Actually this trend of Burrowing Owl concern has been increasing since 2010, but appears to be gaining steam lately. Articles in LA Times and Lawsuits filed by various Environmental organizations like the California Chaparral Institute have brought the subject to the public attention again. I have not written previously about them, but that doesn't mean I've never encountered them before. Actually, I have watched and observed them for decades (since I've traveled so much) and even been entertained by their humorous antics which captured my attention in the first place. While traveling locally around Southern California, I have found them in San Jacinto Valley, especially between Hemet & Winchester, along roadside fences along both side of Hwy 79 from Warner Springs to Lake Henshaw, Ramona, and the list is endless. However the greatest concentration was always down in Imperial Valley and NOT in the conventional ideal habitat locations as insisted upon by the usual celebrity biologists. The conventional opinion demands places like prairies and other open space locales are where you will find them and where they need to be kept. Everybody who is anybody knows this, we that is except the Owls. In my own personal experience of observing these kool birds, it was mostly within city limits near humans and their busy activity. I understand this won't be taken as a kool observation, but this is nevertheless my observation. Much like all my other unconventional observations I've written about over the past year. *cough-cough* Fire Ecology!!!

Photo by Floris van Breugel
Salton Sea
Growing up in San Diego County, the only place I remember seeing them around where I grew up was over in Santee. Why sure enough, it seemed they do like wide open spaces and El Cajon even back in the 1960s was losing not only it's cultivated agricultural land, but also most of it's wide open pastures or fields. Even Meadow Larks were becoming scarce back then and I believe now even they are to the point of being extinct from most of their former locations in El Cajon. Santee however developed later by comparison and the central part of the city which now is sadly further developed has probably pushed most open space wildlife to the brink there as well. I remember long before Cuyamaca St was extended all the way to Mast Boulevard, a vast open prairie was still alive and well with many of these plains critters at an incredible abundance. The area mostly had it's eastern boundary at Magnolia Ave and western boundary where KCBQ Radio Station and Carlton Hills Boulevard and the northern end extending to other fields north of Mast Boulevard where housing & Santana High School now exist. Most of that is gone and if there are any left, they most likely would be in the grassland foothills to the north of the city of Santee. Now I'm not going to tell a story about how the Owls live, eat, and nest etc. This has been done over and over by others and I'll post links at the bottom of this page for that if you are interested. What I am interested in helping folks to understand is that most of my sightings of owls and their nesting habitat was seen within the city limits of El Centro, Imperial, Brawley, Westmoreland, etc or even along roadsides and Farm Irrigation ditches. Hardly the thing of Wide(wild) open spaces. I know, I know, it's not what the field biologists out there tell us with all their stories, but nevertheless they actually do very well in specific locations near and around humans. This doesn't of course take away from movements to save the wild habitats closer to the coast of California, like San Diego. However, look below at the gallery of what has been documented by others in these southwestern locations.

photo by Lineatus -
This above shot is or was common site around many of the cities and small towns around Imperial Valley. This photo I believe was taken somewhere around the Salton Sea, perhaps near Calipatria or Nyland. Storms drains and other culverts are great places to watch for these entertaining little guys.

Photo by Kathie Brown

Parking Lot Burrowing Owls by Kathie Brown
 The above photo was taken in Pima County Arizona, but is also illustrative of what could be seen in times past in and around Imperial Valley towns and cities. The attached link above has more photos of the parking lot habitat. 

Photo by Southwest Birders (Bob & Mary)

Somewhere near the Salton Sea near New River
and Brandt Road.

2010 Photograph by JOSELITO VILLERO
My most favourite place to walk around and view them was at the Imperial Valley College campus grounds. The last visit I made there was in the year 2000.  Burrows were everywhere, especially under concrete sidewalks in between the buildings and out near parking lots. Apparently the Owls never went to University to study about their prime habitats and where they SHOULD ONLY be found living. While I'm in favour of seeing the Owls out in the wild with natural settings, I have no problem with them adapting and actually thriving among humans, since we're not exactly going away any time soon. Good for the Owls. The little birds are feisty and protective of their burrow territory and  I remember seeing them fly up from the ground and attack the backs of a student's head if the student ventured a short cut through the School landscape from the parking area to the Student Union quad area. Back on September 10 2010 in the LA Times, there was a disturbing article about about the major decline in Imperial Valley which has the largest California population of Burrowing Owls. Here are some very important quotes from that piece:
 "An alarming decline in the number of burrowing owls in the Imperial Valley -- a Southern California agricultural area that had been considered a stronghold for the species -- has prompted calls for an immediate inquiry by state wildlife authorities."
"Surveys conducted by the Imperial Irrigation District show the burrowing owl population has dropped from about 5,600 pairs in the early 1990s to 4,879 pairs in 2007, and 3,557 pairs in 2008."
For me this is bothersome because these feisty little birds were thick as flies within city limits and so habitat loss wasn't exactly the issue. Seriously, in the quotes below it states that urban development has brought about habitat loss. NOT, in my 30+ years of traveling down there on a weekly basis, urban & agricultural development have always increased their expansion. I know I know, it's not ecologically kool to say that, but that is nevertheless my observation. However something else may be as the article made important mention:
"Statewide, the burrowing owl has been decreasing because of habitat loss by urban development, elimination of rodents it feeds on, pesticides, predation by domestic animals, vehicle strikes, collisions with wind turbines and shooting."
"Most of California's remaining breeding pairs of burrowing owls are concentrated in Imperial Valley, an area that makes up roughly 2.5% of the state's land, Miller said. "We still don't know exactly what is causing the declines in the Imperial Valley," he said, "but loss of suitable foraging areas from fallowing of agricultural fields due to water transfers and ground squirrel eradication programs may play a role." 

Clearly some things could be eliminated as a possible cause for the Burrowing Owl decline down in the Imperial Valley if the L.A. Times article is true. As I've stated previously above, they were always thick as flies for decades  down in Imperial Valley, so predation by feral or domestic cats and/or other animals, while certainly possible at times, to me would not be an issue. Their populations have been thick for decades down there and the past three or four years of decline if true would not really make much of a difference to me. Once again, these birds are feisty and defend territory fiercely. They certainly are not afraid to dive bomb the biggest and worst predator on Earth (Humans), so why would a bunch of Kitties suddenly be an issue ? No doubt they have been dive bombing cats or any other animal who get too close to the Den entrance and have successfully done so all along. 

(Photo by: Kevin Cole)
The other issue mentioned was less agriculture which would limit food supply for mice (hence less mice) and other food sources like insects. I've never really seen mice in the day time down there in the open, although I always did see plenty at night. Mice also are another one of those critters that never seems to have issues of being pushed aside for any reason. I don't think less fields being cultivated was an issue either. Besides, during the day time when I did watch them catching their prey, it was always grasshoppers, caterpillars and lizards. Anyone who has traveled through Imperial Valley any time, but especially at night has experienced a plethora of all manner of bugs hitting the windscreen and had to wash their vehicle of the zillions of little buggers plastering their car. So I highly doubt there are less bugs to be much of an issue either. 

Photo: Megan Lorenz / Rex Features
Frogs and Lizards are also on their menu and there are plenty of both in great abundance down there. The issue listed of Road Collisions and Humans shooting them no doubt are true, but those things have also always been around, especially the issue of Humans doing stupid things for sport, and while that no doubt has increased, I don't think it's a decline issue either. Such dangers have always been around. But it just quite possibly might be the new class of Industrial Ag pesticide products which as we all know have  become more of an increased phenomena as of late. Along with GMO crops designed to manufacture their own toxic qualities and engineered to be deluged with their science-based chemical cocktail junk. If the Owl's food sources have become contaminated with this junk, then possible decline by these means would be my own best guess. Frogs & insects in and around the field drainage ditches where the excesses of irrigation water loaded with both chemical fertilizers and pesticides leaches from the fields into the drainage ditches on their way to the Salton Sea are the most likely culprit. Again, all the other things have been present all along. The only increase in anything new would be that of the newer generation of chemicals contaminating the food supply and as we all know this has led to the decline of anything and everything beneficial to the Natural world. Ultimately, there is no answer for the control of pesticides. Giant Corporate interests are going to do as they please as long as they load the coffers of all political entities. No ideology is exempt from doing whatever it takes to stay in power. Going to bed with degenerate bedfellows would be considered a necessary evil to fight the good fight of worldview promotion. I honestly don't believe there is any humanly possible solutions to changing these corporate giants as there are no long term historical precedents to put trust or faith in. Notice I said long term, as at times there have been some localized short term successes, but gradually memories fade and even these areas are once again in trouble. The collision with Wind Turbines mention while always possible is also most doubtful given the Owl's preference for ground, much like Quail, they prefer ground. I don't ever think I've seen them fly as high as a turbine  EVER. But it does add colour and sensationalism to any article. With all of this said, I would rather focus on what individuals can do to encourage more Owls on their own private land.

Photo by Bruce Henrickson

Army mobilizes to increase Burrowing Owl habitat in Oregon

Photo by Bruce Henrickson

Speaking personally, I don't think it would be all that tough to find raw salvage materials from which to construct such artificial dens. This would be a fun project for anyone with the right type of  open landscape. Especially land that is too tough to develop or, garden or planting of  any trees because of the hard rocky ground like I had on one knoll on my old place. It would take some work with a long  steel or iron digging bar  , but I think the rewards would be worth it and the exercise and experience worth while from a health standpoint. Involving your kids would also go along way in appreciation which is radically lacking in today's modern society. Reading about something does NOT take the place of actual experience. I think the decline of the Burrowing Owls in Imperial Valley, if true, the experts are going to reassess what is believed to be the problem. Off hand they could interview people (especially old timers) who actually live down there as opposed to what official outdated text books and short sighted periodic field trips lead them to believe. Not only should the Industrial Ag Business products be looked into, but also the Ground Squirrel eradication programs by means of poison bates from the Imperial Irrigation District who have a sort of hate relationship for anything that would disrupt their precious irrigation canal banks.

Certainly the Owls don't mind the supposedly unnatural settings they are not supposed to prefer, like artificial unnatural man-made constructs over the abandoned ground squirrel dens in out of the way wide open spaces. This doesn't by any stretch mean that no one short rally support for protecting historical colony habitats. They should. But it's nice to know the Burrowing Owls are not as sensitive as other wildlife who find it impossible to adapt to human intrusion. Of course, fortunately the Owls never went to University where such habitat legends etched in stone are taught. Fortunately for their own survival, they don't know they are not supposed to adapt well around human activity. Pssst, don't no one tell these little Owls that.
Further Reader References of Interest
Cuyamaca Woods Mountain Journal: "A Diversion to the Salton Sea: Our Annual Visit"
Army mobilizes to increase Burrowing Owl habitat in Oregon
Cornell Lab of Ornithology - Burrowing Owls