“Where’s Waldo?” The search for burrowing owls in the prairies

I imagine spotting a burrowing owl in the prairie grasslands to be similar to finding a needle in a haystack or spotting Waldo in a “Where’s Waldo” book. Weighing only 125-185 grams, or the average weight of a russet potato, the burrowing owl is a small endangered grassland bird with a rounded head, long legs and intense yellow eyes. They camouflage well – with mottled brown and beige feathers blending in beautifully within their habitat in mixed-grass prairies of southwestern Manitoba.

Contrary to their name, burrowing owls do not burrow. Instead they depend on abandoned burrows made by digging mammals such as badgers, foxes and ground squirrels, to nest and lay their eggs. They prefer wide-open, short-grass pasture and have often been observed and reported by landowners perching on fence posts.

The burrowing owl is listed as endangered across Canada with populations decreasing over 96% since 1987. Typically found in the southwestern corner of Manitoba, burrowing owl populations declined from approximately 80 pairs in 1980s to under 5 pairs in 2011. Only two wild pairs were observed in 2020.

A combination of agricultural expansion, loss of digging mammals (who are often viewed as pests) and climate change (extreme and more frequent inclement weather events) have negatively impacted the number of wild burrowing owls returning to Canada in the breeding season. Burrowing owls migrate every fall travelling as far south as the Gulf of Mexico and Mexico.

The Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program (MBORP), founded by Executive Director Alex Froese, aims to increase burrowing owl populations in southwestern Manitoba through reintroduction, surveys, monitoring, research and education. Field surveys to detect wild owls are only a fraction of the work the organization strives to complete each summer. 

This is my first season working with MBORP and conducting field surveys. Initially, I was unsure what sort of success I would have during my first week. With supplies in hand; binoculars, a call-playback speaker, notepad, pencil and survey maps, I began each morning in search of these unique little owls in the southwest corner of Manitoba.

Knowing how impressively camouflaged burrowing owls are within the grassland surroundings, I was consistently thrown off by the attentive stance of ground squirrels and distant birds.

Most striking was the abundance of bird calls and songs filtering across the cool, calm prairie. While playing an audio clip of a male burrowing owl territorial call, I would scan the fields and nearby fence posts, searching for movement. I could only hope to hear a returning “coo-coo” from a wild male owl, yet, nothing was heard through the orchestra of songbirds. And though I didn’t observe any burrowing owls by the end of the week, it was an impressive first week of wildlife sightings including two moose, several deer, hawks, coyotes, foxes, and a lone raccoon scurrying across a field. This just means that my search continues!

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, a non-profit working with local landowners in southwestern Manitoba to improve habitat and reintroduce burrowing owls to historic areas.

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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