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Palominas residents provide new homes for burrowing owls

Article Date: 2007-11-19   Source: http://www.svherald.com   Comments: 0

By Shar Porier

Palominas, Arizona, U.S.A. - Come spring, around 40 burrowing owls will be released and, it is hoped, make their new home in the vast grasslands at the foot of the Huachuca Mountains.

Thanks to the program of the nonprofit Wild At Heart and a dozen or so volunteers, 96 man-made burrows were constructed over the weekend on the 93-acre spread of Ricky and Lorraine Veal.

"We read about the program in the Sierra Vista Herald and decided we wanted to provide a home for them," Lorraine said. "We called to offer our acreage to the project. We thought it was a good fit."

The little owls will fit in well with their other USDA-sponsored WHPP (wildlife habitat protection plan) areas. Since the Veals created little natural habitats at different locations, they have seen an increase in wildlife much to their delight. Critters such as deer, javalina, bobcats, mountain lions and even a sandhill crane, which regularly raids the water tanks for the little mosquito-eating fish, have crossed the property.

The retired couple love wildlife and are looking forward to watching the antics of the priority-listed small raptor often referred to as "cute" and even "farmer's friends."

The burrowing owl provides insect and rodent control and can reduce the costs of pesticides, said Greg Clark of Wild At Heart.

The grasslands of Arizona and much of North America used to be prime real estate for the only raptor that lives underground. Prairie dog holes were their preferred homes and the two species lived in harmony.

"That all changed when prairie dogs were killed by farmers and ranchers. In doing that, the burrowing owls were also displaced and even killed," said Clark. "The burrowing owl was the most prevalent species of owl at one time. They literally covered North America."

Clark believes that prairie dogs got a bad rap and would like to begin re-introducing them, but he believes the political climate is still against the prairie dog even though they have been proven to protect and maintain grasslands by eating scrub brush.

Burrowing owls also are a benefit to have around since they eat insects, including scorpions, snakes, lizards and rodents. Even a baby rabbit can end up on the menu.

In an odd twist of evolution, the burrowing owl has developed the knack of imitating one of its predators - the rattlesnake.

"You'll hear that rattling and hissing and you'll think there's a rattlesnake in the hole. You can't tell the difference," cautioned Clark. "I've heard it, and I don't want to stick my hand in there. You just don't know."

In Arizona, as well as other places, development has displaced thousands of the little feathered creatures and untold numbers were buried alive in their burrows as bulldozers moved in to clear land for construction.

"We work with developers and move the owls out before they start clearing. As soon as the owls are discovered, we work with the companies to capture them and move them to a temporary home until we find a suitable spot for relocation," Clark said.

Since the burrowing owl has been designated a priority species, which means they are on their way to one of the other lists, such as endangered, it allows the group to help sustain the species before its population drops.

Way out in the Veal's grasslands, several suitable spots were found to dig the burrows and set the nests. Clark explained that the site has to be in an open area with few tall trees around. The little owl has many predators including other owls and hawks.

Ricky was down in a 4-foot-deep ditch setting the drainage pipe in the 12-foot long burrow and attaching it to a 5-gallon bucket that would serve as the resting and nesting site. The ground end of the drainage pipe is inserted into a larger piece of rigid, white PVC pipe. That protects the burrow from digging creatures like skunks or dogs, who want to enlarge the burrow opening so they can get to the avian creature inside. The white pipe is then painted black to protect it from the sun.

Thanks to Southwest Gas, there was no hand digging. The company provided the equipment and the operators to dig the tunnel for the burrows and the main hole that held four of the buckets. Each site is somewhat of a quadriplex with four buckets set close together and four burrows set about 10 feet apart in a H-shaped square. They also come back and fill the holes in, Clark said. Many utility companies in the state offer their equipment for the project.

A special foam is used to make the flexible drainage pipe firm. Then rocks are placed around the hole to make it look natural.

The burrows are then sealed off so no other ground dwelling animal can take over. Since it is the migration time for the birds, they aren't moved to the new location until spring.

"We're really not sure where they all go in migration. Sometimes the females and the young will stay and the males leave. In other instances, the males stay and the females leave. We may get burrowing owls from Canada wintering down here. But, right now, we have no way of tracking them, so we just don't know where they go," added Clark.

Owls are kept at a shelter for at least 30 days to eliminate the visual imprint in their minds of their home and range. Then, when the time is right, the birds are moved to the new site into a tent that keeps them at the site and in the burrows so they become accustomed to their new homes. Each group of owls have at least one successful breeding pair to assure the continuation of the colony.

One of the perks of having the owls around is watching their antics as they chase their prey. It's a form of entertainment that one won't find on TV, Clark said.

"Once people have them, they love them. They hunt in the day time, so you can see them as they go hunting. They're cute. They hop along the ground and bob up and down," Clark added.

There is another site soon to come full circle on Davis Road at the 47 Ranch, where 500 burrows will be dug sometime in December and January, Clark said.

That will be one of the first nesting sites dug in the Mid-Sulphur Springs Valley.

Disclaimer: This article has been reproduced from http://www.svherald.com and placed here for comment. OwlPages.com is not responsible for the accuracy of any information in this article, and does not necessarily agree with the author's opinions.

Related Articles:
2006-12-09 - Organization helps owls affected by construction by Gentry Braswell - Palominas, Arizona, U.S.A.

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