Owls in Rain - April 30, 2013

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS:

Q: I cannot see any owls. Where are they?

A: Burrowing Owls are diurnal and nocturnal, meaning they are active during the day and night. However, they do spend quite a bit of time in their burrow. Mostly the male stands guard at the entrance and the female spends more time below. But sometimes they will both be in the burrow, especially when disturbed. Wait and watch or check back often and you'll be sure to see them!

Q: What is that yellow post in the foreground?

A: The yellow post is actually a T-shaped perch that the owls can use for increased elevation to survey their surroundings.

Q: What is the best time to see them?

A: Burrowing Owls are most active at dawn and dusk so mornings and late afternoons are the best time to view them. But they will appear at any time of the day so keep watching!

Q: Why is there a fence around the owls and why are they so close to the road?

A: The fence protects the owls from disturbance and their burrow is in an irrigation swale on the school property. They need to nest in areas above the flood level and the area closest to the road is most suitable for them. Sometimes you might see people walking past. The owls are accustomed to the presence of people.

Q: When do they breed?

A: Typically burrowing Owls breed in the winter from January to March but these owls have been known to breed throughout the year and raise multiple broods.

ABOUT BURROWING OWLS

Appearance:

Burrowing Owl Live CamThe burrowing owl is a pint-sized bird that lives in open, treeless areas. The burrowing owl spends most of its time on the ground, where its sandy brown plumage provides camouflage from potential predators. One of Florida's smallest owls, it averages nine inches in height with a wingspan of 21 inches. The burrowing owl lacks the ear tufts of the more familiar woodland owls. Bright yellow eyes and a white chin accent the face. Unusually long legs provide additional height for a better view from its typical ground-level perch.

Habitat:

The Florida burrowing owl occurs throughout the state although its distribution is considered local and spotty. The presence of burrowing owls is primarily dependent upon habitat. Humans have created new habitat for burrowing owls by clearing forests and draining wetlands. Burrowing owls inhabit open native prairies and cleared areas that offer short groundcover including pastures, agricultural fields, golf courses, airports, and vacant lots in residential areas. Historically, the burrowing owl occupied the prairies of central Florida. Recently, these populations have decreased because of disappearing habitat while populations in south Florida coastal areas have increased due to modification of habitat by humans.

Burrowing owls live as single breeding pairs or in loose colonies consisting of two or more families. Unlike most owls, burrowing owls are active during both day and night. During the day, they are usually seen standing erect at the mouth of the burrow or on a nearby post. When disturbed, the owl bobs in agitation and utters a chattering or clucking call. In flight, burrowing owls typically undulate as if they are flying an invisible obstacle course. They also can hover in midair, a technique effective for capturing food.

Burrowing owls use burrows year-round; for roosting during the winter and for raising young during the breeding season (Feb - July). Florida's owls typically dig their own burrows but will use gopher tortoise or armadillo burrows. Burrows extend 4 to 8 feet underground and are lined with materials such as grass clippings, feathers, paper, and manure.

Behavior:

Burrowing Owl babiesBurrowing owls mainly eat insects, especially grasshoppers and beetles. They can be of special benefit in urban settings since they also consume roaches and mole crickets. Other important foods are small lizards, frogs, snakes, birds, and rodents.

Eggs are primarily laid in March but nesting can occur from October through May. The female lays six to eight eggs over a one-week period. She will incubate the eggs for 21 to 28 days. At hatching, the young owls are covered with white downy feathers and have their eyes closed. They emerge from the burrow when they are 2 weeks old. At 4 weeks, they are learning to fly but cannot fly well until 6 weeks old. They remain with their parents until they are 12 weeks old.

The Florida burrowing owl is classified as a "species of special concern" by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. This means burrows, owls, and their eggs are protected from harassment and/or disturbance by state law. Burrowing owls are also protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

 Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commission

Burrowing Owls History in Florida

Burrowing Owls in Broward County FloridaBroward County has one of the highest densities of Burrowing Owls in Florida and it also has a very high human population density.  Not surprisingly, these factors bring Burrowing Owls into close contact with humans across the county. The Florida sub-species of Burrowing Owl is now classified as a threatened species in Florida and it is one of the rarest sub-species of Burrowing Owls.  Loss of habitat due to development, disturbance at burrows and negative interactions with humans are some of the threats facing this charismatic species.

A staggering 55 Broward County Public schools have Burrowing Owls on their properties. Through various education initiatives and with help from Project Perch many of the schools now protect their owls by providing suitable habitat and burrows. The owls return the favor by providing the students and teachers with a rare glimpse into the natural history of these fascinating birds.

Burrowing Owls have been present at our school camera location since at least 1984.  For most of this time the school had 1 to 2 pairs of owls nesting on athletic fields. At one point they tried to burrow in the sand for the long jump pit. For a long time they were in an area between the classrooms.  The pair in this area did very well and over time they became year round residents that were known to produce more than one brood in a year.  During occasional cold weather they would perch on top of a light box under the overhang of one of the classroom buildings. A school expansion project was started that would use the space where the owls had burrowed and a permit to remove the burrow was applied for by the school district.

The teachers and students were very interested in relocating the owls to a safer place and began a project that would create new “artificial burrows” for the owls.  Artificial burrows take the permit mitigation process further by not just clearing the grass but actually digging a starter burrow for the owls and installing a 3 foot tunnel made out of modified 6” PVC pipe.  Within a week of being installed the owls were at one of the burrows! Since the artificial burrows have been installed owls have not nested on the athletic fields or anywhere else on school grounds except where the artificial burrows are located.  Since the installation of artificial burrows the colony has grown supporting up to 3 pairs of owls, all breeding at once!  The owls from the old burrow area near the classrooms continue to raise multiple broods and 2 other pairs have moved in.  The owls have dug a new natural burrow near one of the artificial burrows.  The colony has numbered 17 at one point and fledged as many as 9 owlets during the normal breeding season.

The owl couple on the live camera feed is the youngest breeding pair in the colony and are a little over a year old. Although you cannot see it they are using one of the artificial burrows.  They have recently lost the last of their juvenile fluff and it looks like they may be getting down to the serious business of raising a family!  Several weeks ago, this pair was seen mating and they have spent more time feeding and spending most of their time close to home.  The male seems to be nervously guarding the burrow like an expectant father. Is the female feeding heavily to lay eggs or are there owlets down there that they are already busy feeding?  Join us as we track their progress!

NO CLIPS AVAILABLE AT THIS TIME

Perch Project - Protecting Burrowing Owl in SE Florida
Blinky's Snail Midden
Friday, May 30, 2014

Shell Middens

We trimmed around the burrow and adjusted the sticks we were using to help deter the Coopers Hawk when we came upon a pile of snail shells.  It was about two feet behind the burrow entrance and it was the owlet's snail midden.  A midden is a kitchen pile or shell heap and is a word used by archaeologists worldwide to describe any kind of feature containing waste products from day to day life.1 In Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries middens are referred to as Conchales and derives from the Spanish word for mollusc shell, concha.1

We could see the juvenile owl eating them and then walking off camera.  But until we found the pile of shells, we were not able to identify them as tree snails.  We didn't think of snails as a food source for the owls, let alone this significant a food source.  It makes perfect sense as the snails are available close to home and require no skill to catch, but most importantly provide a good source of protein for a young owl.  Snails have no bones or fur, which very young owls have difficulty with and so snails may be one of the first food items owlets learn to get and eat on their own.   

Undamaged Shells

While all raptors have hooked beaks, Snail Kites have a specialized bill that is deeply curved and acts like a hook that is uses to pull the snail out of its shell.2 Snail Kites feed almost exclusively on freshwater snails and once the meat is extracted, they discard the undamaged shells.2 When we examined the shells in the pile, they were not broken or damaged.  All of the shells were intact.  So this young owl can also extract the snail meat without damaging the shell.  

Although we did not find any references that Athene Floridana eats snails, we did fine a reference that Athene cunicularia's food habits include snails.3 Oscar Rebuffone took this picture of a Burrowing owl eating a snail in Buenos Aires, Aregntina in September of 2013.4

Whitewash on the Shells

Pack rats are known to defecate on their middens which also serve as their dens.5 So defecating on the midden helps to solidify the walls and the thicker the wall of the den, the cooler the interior is and the more moisture it traps.5 The inside of a pack rat den is typically 20 degrees cooler than the desert air with twice as much humidity.5 We checked the shell pile for whitewash, but there was none.  Seems the shell pile is just refuse from a readily available food source accumulating in an out of the way spot. 

Type of Snail

Using a dichotomous key for Florida tree snails from the University of Florida's Featured Creatures, we identified the snails as West Indian Bulimulus or Bulimulus guadalupensis.6 The shell is marked by one to two faint or three strong brown spiral bands and a narrow white subsutural band and lacks vertical stripes, apex is brown to ivory.6 This snail was introduced from Puerto Rico and is found on low-lying ground covers and in lawns in south eastern Florida.6     

Piling the Shells

The owlet finds the snails in the grass, eats them where she finds them and then takes the shells to the pile.  The owlet is leaving the shells in a pile behind the burrow and normally the owls leave their other carcasses and waste in front of the burrow entrance where it attracts bugs.  The pile of shells was not buggy when it was observed.  Perhaps the shells are piled so they are not confused for live snails or so they are not underfoot in the future, or both.  The reason or reasons why the shells are piled nearby requires further investigation.

Sources:

1 Brinton, D. G. (1866). "Artificial Shell-deposits of the United States". Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

2 The Peregrine Fund, Explore Raptor Species: the Snail Kite, http://www.peregrinefund.org/explore-raptorsspecies/Snail_Kite#sthash.pYQ7HXcC.dpbs

3 University of Michigan Museum of Zoology's Animal Diversity Web, Athene cunicularia's Food Habits, http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Athene_cunicularia/

4 Rebuffone, Oscar.  September 7, 2013.  The Internet Bird Café, Burrowing owl eating a snail. http://ibc.lynxeds.com/photo/burrowing-owl-athene-cunicularia/burrowing-owleating-snail

5 Wright, Karen.  September 01, 1993. Revelations of Rat Scat.  Discover Magazine, http://discovermagazine.com/1993/sep/revelationsofrat265

6 Deisler, Jane E. August 2000. Entomology and Nematology Featured Creature: Tree Snails of Florida. University of Florida IFAS,   http://entomology.ifas.ufl.edu/creatures/misc/gastro/tree_snails.htm#key

 

ARCHIVES

  • Implications of a Genetic Depression
    We were drafting language to go on the EarthCam site and I played a joke on the teacher at the school. I sent her this draft language for her approval: “Peek into the secret lives of these polyamorous birds! Do the youngest owls find mates or do they just mate with each other?
  • Trash: Just One of the Problems Facing Owls
    On Tuesday, a park patron at Vista View was walking by and noticed Mother Owl’s entangled foot and took some pictures. Hair or minnow net? I don’t think we ever got the answer to that question.
  • Re-nesting, Double-brooding, Nest Success and Fledgling Rates
    When an initial nesting attempt fails, several species re-nest. Re-nesting has been documented in numerous birds, including Western and Florida burrowing owls. Two successful nests during the same breeding season is called “double-brooding” and was defined by Marti in 1969.
  • Burrow Visitors: Commensalism versus Mutualism
    The Tiny Visitor We called the small bird the tiny visitor. We asked Ken Schneider to help us identify it and he sent back “Looks like a Palm Warbler. Line over eye, long legs, constantly moves tail up and down.” The bird was always flicking its tail and he had described it perfectly.
  • Owlets and Nestling Development - The First 30 Days
    The owlets began arriving on February 5th and for the first time we saw babies begging for food and still with their natal down. For the first month we watched them learn how to bug and fly. As we watched them develop, we also got an in-depth lesson in "parallaxing" and "anting".
  • Nesting Behaviors for These Owls
    As we watched the owls begin nesting for the second time, we kept a list of all of the nesting behaviors that we learned to look for and recognize. We also documented some very strange owl droppings.
  • Black, Speckled and Brown Eyed Owls
    When I first started learning about burrowing owls, Dr. Mealey, our local burrowing owl expert, told me about dark eyed owls. He suggested that I go to Brian Piccolo Park and look for an adult owl with black eyes so I could see one first hand but when I went there I couldn’t find that owl.
  • The Fire Ants Arrive
    Sunday September 22, the text came in, “Dirt in foreground. Ants? Too far from burrow for owls.” The grass was long and there was some extra dirt in the foreground, but on camera it was hard to see. It was even harder to tell that the extra dirt was ant mounds.
  • The Coop Arrives
    Later that week, the owls seemed nervous, checking skyward all the time. They would retreat into the burrow and stay there. We thought they were worried about an aerial predator, but on June 26 we would learn just how real their concern was.
  • Dispersal: Where do the owls go?
    Even before Tropical Storm Andrea, the burrowing owls had started to disappear. We were not at all surprised; they were always scarce in August. We knew the owls dispersed after nesting. We had been telling the students that owls dispersed once their young were fledged, because they could.
  • Burrowing Owl Colonies
    Burrowing owls are considered colonial nesters. In the 1890s, colonies of 200 to 300 Burrowing owls were described on the Kissimmee Prairie. Here are some of the first descriptions of the Florida burrowing owls published by the Smithsonian in the Bent Life Series:
  • Behaviors, Activity Patterns and Time Budgets of Burrowing Owls
    When we first started watching the owls in April, their behavior seemed “normal” to us and what we expected. By mid-May, we could not believe the amount of food the male was bringing back to the burrow.
  • Do the Owls Have Eggs or Owlets?
    This is the question we have been getting the most. So we’ll tell you everything we know.
  • Project Perch's Artificial Burrow Design
    The artificial burrow design that we use, comes from Dr. Mealey; he is locally known as the Burrowing owl expert as he consulted on the movie Hoot. He has been our technical consultant at Project Perch for years and generously donates 2 out of every 3 hours he works for the schools.
  • Tropical Storm Andrea and Flooding Burrows
    On June 7, a little after lunch the rain really started falling; it was the rain bands from Tropical Storm Andrea. Around 3pm, I was on the phone with one of our partners and we were watching together. It really looked miserable out there and it just didn’t stop.

What You Can Do To Help

Burrowing Owl Live CamInstall T-perches near owl burrows. Perches provide burrowing owls with an elevated view of the nest area, and also make the burrows more visible to mowing machine operators. Many burrows collapse each year when mower tires pass near the burrow entrance. If you put up perches, be sure that you keep the grass and weeds trimmed low around the burrow to give the owls the unobstructed view that they need to avoid predators.

Restrict use of pesticides. Because burrowing owls feed on insects that are considered pests around homes, they are exposed to the insecticides you use. Pesticides decrease and possibly contaminate food available to owls. Explore options other than using pesticides, but if you continue to use them, please do so with caution.

Attracting owls to your lawn. Burrowing owls may dig burrows in sodded yards if vacant lots are scarce. To attract a pair, remove a 1-2 foot circular plug of sod from the lawn. This exposes the sandy soil needed by the owls for burrowing. You might also start the burrow and place a pile of loose sand near the mouth.

Placing a T-perch near the burrow can help draw it to a pair's attention.

Report malicious destruction or harassment of burrowing owls or their nests.
1-888-404-FWCC (3922).

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Burrowing Owl Coloring Pages

Please click here and here for printable Burrowing Owl coloring-in pages.

Burrowing Owls: Superheroes of the Bird World and Our Environment
Learn about Burrowing Owls, their special adaptations and the role they play in our Florida environment with our interactive presentation.  After the children have seen the presentation, they can make paperplate owl masks and view the live feed.  Supplies needed for the craft are a paperplate and a tongue depressor for each student and tape and crayons.  The presentation should take about 10-15 minutes and the craft is about the same.  Click here for the presentation.


We will be developing this page as a useful resource for kids and teachers. Check back often for updates.

Welcome to our Burrowing Owl Wall of Fame!

Send your pics of the cam to info@birdingadventures.com and they may just end up on this Wall of Fame. You can take pictures of the cam using the Grab tool on your Mac or by taking a screen shot on your PC. Key moments and interesting behavior will be featured here!

The owls love the rain. Here they can be seen enjoying the respite from the Florida heat!
Owls in Rain - April 30, 2013
The owls love the rain. Here they can be seen enjoying the respite from the Florida heat!
Burrowing Owls feed mainly on insects but they will take lizards, rodents and even frogs.
Owl with frog - April 30, 2013
Burrowing Owls feed mainly on insects but they will take lizards, rodents and even frogs.
The owls love the rain. Here they can be seen enjoying the respite from the Florida heat!
Owls after the rain - April 30, 2013
The owls love the rain. Here they can be seen enjoying the respite from the Florida heat!
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