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Burrowing owl experts gather in Mid-Columbia

Article Date: 2009-05-21   Source:   Comments: 0

By John Trumbo

Umatilla, Oregon, U.S.A. - Experts from across the U.S. attending a burrowing owl symposium today in Umatilla may outnumber the species' dwindling population in the Mid-Columbia.

Thirty-five wildlife specialists who are concerned about the future for the diminutive owls will talk about why they believe the endangered bird seems to be losing habitat and population across the Western U.S. and Canada.

The symposium will be held at the Umatilla Chemical Depot in Umatilla, which has an active burrowing owl preservation program, and one of the main speakers is owl researcher David H. Johnson, executive director of the Global Owl Project based in Alexandria, Va. The session is not open to the public.

"This is all about advancing the science and conservation for burrowing owls," Johnson said Tuesday. Of critical concern is that burrowing owls' known habitat in the western U.S. and Canada is steadily shrinking, but wildlife biologists in both countries aren't sure why.

Burrowing owls -- a species distinct to the Americas -- have been known to nest in areas from Saskatchewan, Canada, south through the Dakotas and western Oklahoma and Texas into Mexico, while reaching westward into California, Oregon and Washington.

The birds, which stand about 10 inches tall, use vacant animal burrows for their nests and usually are found in grasslands and desert areas such as the Mid-Columbia shrub-steppe. They primarily feed on insects and small animals.

Johnson said despite 80 years of banding burrowing owls in an attempt to follow their life cycle and travels, there is scant data to study.

Fewer than 400 of the banded birds have been recovered since the 1920s, which is not enough over such a long period to provide meaningful information.

With a life span of about seven years, burrowing owls provide researchers too little time for an effective "catch-band/release-recapture method" of tracking the birds' habits.

Heidi Newsome, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service McNary Refuge Office, said researchers do field surveys every spring to check on known burrowing owl nesting sites on the 195,000-acre Hanford Reach National Monument. There are 84 known sites in the survey's database, but most are abandoned, destroyed or unused for several years.

"The number of burrows we check annually is the same, but the number that are occupied keeps going down. Now we have five," Newsome said.

That's not news to Johnson, who said: "It's the same in Colorado."

Mike Livingston, district wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said one thing is obvious. "Fewer juveniles are coming back each year."

The situation is critical in Canada, where Johnson said the known population of burrowing owls has been dropping 16 percent a year for years.

"As to the cause, that still a big question," he said.

Johnson has been studying owls for 33 years. Ten years were for agencies in Washington and another 10 in Oregon. As executive director of the Global Owl Project, he said he keeps in touch with owl researchers in 86 countries, "from the United Kingdom to China."

Some of those faraway experts will be listening and participating via high-tech links.

Today's meeting will try to find some answers.

One of the experts is Courtney Conway, a biologist at the University of Arizona who previously was at Washington State University in the Tri-Cities and worked as a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey.

"We've had about 15 percent of our burrows destroyed annually in the Tri-Cities," he told the Herald in 2003.

At that time, Conway said he and research assistants had been able to monitor about 100 nests a year in the Tri-Cities and had banded more than 200 adult owls during a four-year period.

But Newsome's more recent numbers reflect a dramatic decline over the past six years.

Speakers this afternoon will talk about burrowing owl projects in Idaho and Washington, as well as what has been done to aid owls at the Umatilla Chemical Depot and Boardman Bombing Range.

Newsome will report on owls in the Hanford Reach/Saddle Mountain area.

Johnson will discuss new technology that could help track burrowing owls, the success of artificial burrows, and various mapping projects across the owls' extensive Western range.

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

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2010-06-21 - Burrowing owls make comeback at Umatilla depot by Kevin McCullen - Umatilla, Oregon, U.S.A.
2009-05-04 - Abandoned owls have home near Benton City by John Trumbo - Benton City, Washington, U.S.A.
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