“You can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty!” was one of the first remarks I heard at the location of our artificial nesting burrow installation site, soon to be home to 10 conservation-release burrowing owls. I later recalled the truthfulness of this remark, with a shovel in my hands, standing waist-deep in the ground. The Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program aims to increase endangered burrowing owl populations in southwestern Manitoba through reintroduction, surveys, monitoring, research and education. Digging nesting burrows is a necessary part of our program and an essential habitat requirement for these unique little owls.

A conservation-release burrowing owl.

The owls cannot dig burrows and instead depend on abandoned burrows made by digging mammals to nest and tlay their eggs. Most burrowing mammals, such as ground squirrels, are viewed as pests and are removed from pasture land. Therefore, installing artificial nesting burrows in suitable land can provide homes for returning migratory burrowing owls.

Artificial nesting burrows consist of eight-foot-long black weeping tile dug down, at a slant, to a four-foot depth. Here, a five-gallon pail is placed, acting as the owl’s nesting area. Burrowing owls have shown a preference for artificial burrows over burrows of other digging mammals. They are also more difficult for predators to gain access.

A conservation-release burrowing owl pair at the entrance of an artificial nesting burrow.

Reintroduction efforts include holding back some owl young from the previous season, overwintering them at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and reintroducing the owls to southwestern Manitoba the following spring. These owls are brought out to suitable release sites, where they are paired up to breed and released to migrate in the fall. Holding back young until the following season leads to higher migration success.

Installing artificial nesting burrows by shovel is no easy task. At our release site location, the soil material varied between soft black dirt, fine silt/sand, and – for some unfortunate volunteers – gravel and large rocks. Luckily, with the help of our volunteers, we were able to dig all 10 burrows and complete our enclosure installations.

The completed release site.

The release site consists of five enclosures, each with two artificial nesting burrows. Each enclosure has a 2×4 wood frame surrounded by mesh netting, construction fencing and chicken wire to deter any interested predators. Pens are raised until each pair has laid roughly three to four eggs to encourage pair bonding and reduce nest abandonment. Afterwards, the pens are lowered to allow the owls to hunt naturally and raise their young.

Conservation-release burrowing owl enclosure.

Our owls have been breeding successfully at our release site, with a combined total of 40 eggs laid. This is wonderful news for our program, and we are looking forward to the hatch days in the next one to two weeks. Our hard work has paid off!

Taylor Denolf

Field Technician – Burrowing Owl Recovery

Taylor will be entering her final year of her Bachelor of Science Degree Program at Brandon University this fall, 2021. She is majoring in Biology and minoring in Environmental Geography. Her love of all things nature has always been apparent. She is very excited to join the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program this season.

Taylor is looking forward to learning more about these unique endangered grassland birds and spreading the importance of grassland conservation.
Photo: Alex Froese

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