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
The Year The Burrows Collapsed
Friday, December 19, 2014

School returned in the fall of 2013 and the Prolific Pair's burrow had collapsed.  It was an artificial burrow and the grass sunk right behind the pipe.  We assumed it was the mower.  We weren't sure if it was a total collapse and thought maybe the burrow could still be used or repaired by the owls.  Luckily, right before school started we had moved another artificial burrow nearby from another location where it had never been used.  So the Prolific Pair moved there. They excavated a nesting chamber in the new burrow, laid eggs and raised owlets.  Father owl would hang out often in the entrance of the old collapsed burrow, especially once the owlets were older and space was at a premium.  

In the winter, another school called with a collapsed burrow and this time it was definitely the mower.  This burrow was a large natural burrow right along the fence line and the tire had not only collapsed a good section of the tunnel but the nesting chamber as well.  The owls built another burrow in the corner of a drainage ditch so it was quick to flood.  In April we rebuilt their original burrow with an artificial pipe.  The owls checked it out but would not move back home.  They would not have babies that nesting season.  There were also no owlets the year before and we wondered if the burrow had suffered a partial collapse then and we didn't notice until the mower's tire completely destroyed it.      

At the end of the school year, a third school called with another collapse; we couldn't believe it.  This natural burrow was in a sandy area.  Luckily the owls had already nested and their owlets were fledged.  So even though the burrow suffered at least a partial collapse, the owls and owlets weren't inside and weren't totally dependent on it and so they dispersed from the burrow.  By the time school returned, the owls had built a new burrow out on the athletic field. 

Burrow Collapse: A Leading Cause of Nesting Failures 

We knew that burrow collapse was a cause of nesting failure, but why were we seeing so many this year?  We debated that it was because we were monitoring more owl burrows.  Owl burrows had always been collapsing at this rate, but we just weren't witness to it.   

When we built artificial burrows, Dr. Mealey taught us first to always look for high ground.  Burrow flooding was the major concern and in his study it was the "primary reason for known nesting failures" at 63%.1  When the cam owls' burrow flooded for 3 hours and they lost their first nestlings to Tropical Storm Andrea we learned just how important it was for the nesting chamber to be on high ground (BuOw Blog 4).  In Dr. Mealey's study, the second cause of nesting failures were burrow collapses at 18%, primarily due to cow trampling.1  The school owls don't have to worry about cows, but they do need to worry about heavy lawn mowers.  In Millsap and Bear's study of the Cape Coral owls, the leading causes of nest failure were nest destruction during construction, harassment largely by school age children, flooding and mowing was fourth on the list.2 

For years we had been advising people to mow the lawn and to not stop mowing around the owls.  If the grass isn't maintained, the owls lose visibility and will sometimes abandon.  We had seen several examples of this.  The schools had put up a couple of small chain link fences around owl burrows that prevented lawn maintenance.  Once overgrown the owls moved outside of the fence and out of the tall grass.  We had also seen small temporary fences that prevented lawn care on the interior and again the owls moved their burrow entrances to be on the outside of the fence in the short grass.  Sometimes the owls could make a path through the high grass and stayed and sometimes they abandoned.  We had seen correspondence from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission that focused on the importance of continuing regular lawn care and stressed that the owls do fine in a mowed environment.  We had also visited a lot of the Broward County parks with owls that were living in a heavily manicured landscape. 

When we installed artificial burrows, which are 6" PVC pipes that are 3-4 feet long, we would talk about how they would protect the owls from burrow collapse from mowers and be safer for the owls going forward, but the pipe is just a starter burrow and the owls have to dig their own nesting chambers.  We installed several artificial burrows at schools and parks.  We had been watching the artificial burrows and neighboring natural burrows and the owls seemed to be doing well.  Then the Cam Owls had their nestlings and Dr. Mealey advised that the burrow be hand trimmed until the nestlings were fledged.  We had been hand trimming the burrow, but had never before stopped the school's regular lawn care and that was not easy to do, but he was adamant.  We needed to keep the mowers away and the owlets safe. So we stopped the lawn care for both the Cam Owls and Prolific Pair for about 6 weeks or until the owlets were fledged.  Once fledged, the owlets would flee the area with their parents before the mower arrived and so they would be safe if the mower collapsed the burrow. 

Starter Burrows No More! Owls Need a Safe Nesting Chamber Too  

The owl cam also allowed us to watch lawn care up close.  It is not the quick couple of passes that we thought.  Typical mows included 3-5 passes of the mower.  On one occasion the mower went over the burrow 9 times and on another visit the mower sat right behind the burrow while the lawn guys talked.  We were getting a real education about commercial lawn mowing, how to really protect owlets and now with all of these collapsed burrows, we started to rethink the design of our artificial burrows.  The owls needed not only a safe tunnel, but more importantly a safe nesting chamber.  That summer Ernest Leupin joined our team and he had built artificial burrows in Canada out of 6" perforated pipe and a 5 gallon bucket as the nesting chamber and he agreed a safe nesting chamber was paramount.  So we changed our design to include an irrigation control valve box on the end, a really safe nesting chamber.

Repairing the Collapsed Burrows

In August we went back to the first two schools and added new nesting chambers to the end of their artificial burrows, so they would both have a complete burrow in time for the next nesting season.  At the first school, the Prolific Pair are still in the other burrow.  Although they checked out the repaired burrow and new nesting chamber, they have not moved back there, but father owl still hangs out in it from time to time.  At the second school, the owls moved into an older empty burrow along the sidewalk.  They visit the drain burrow regularly and checked out the repaired burrow but haven't been back to it.  The third school had been planning a burrow project already, so in early December we added 4 new burrows with nesting chambers to their old habitat.  Ernest used his design for this project and one of the burrows has an entrance that is very similar to their old burrow.  Only time will tell if any of the owls will return to any of the repaired burrows.  If owls have a memory and avoid those burrows, we may have to wait for younger owls to move in. 

Another Collapsed Burrow

I was in the process of trying to get this BuOw Blog published when the fourth school called in.  It was a middle school that wanted to help a pair of owls nesting in the long jump at their neighboring high school.  The owl's new burrow kept getting disturbed.  The owls used to nest nearby, behind a fence, where they were protected from the student traffic on the athletic fields; but when their old burrow was examined, it was collapsed.  The owls were forced to move.  Right next door was a recently sanded long jump pit and there is nowhere more attractive to a digging owl than that.  We would have to "passively" attract them away from that and so we had our work cut out for us.  

Sources:

Mealey, Brian.  1997. Reproductive Ecology of the Burrowing Owls, Speotyto Cunicularia Floridana, in Dade and Broward Counties, Florida.  Falcon Batchelor Bird of Prey Bird of Prey Center, Miami Museum of Science, Florida. http://www.instwildlifesciences.org/Mealey.BUOW1997.pdf

2 Millsap, Brian and Cindy Bear.  January, 2000. Density and Reproduction of Burrowing Owls along an Urban Development Gradient. The Journal of Wildlife Management, Vol 64, No 1, pp. 33-41.

ARCHIVES

  • A Softer Kinder Release From Rehabilitation
    This young owl was found in North Miami Beach, stunned and disoriented. It was turned into Pelican Harbor Seabird Station and then transferred to the South Florida Wildlife Center. On admittance, the physical exam comments read “bright, alert, responsive, feisty, no injuries or wounds seen. Flies."
  • Were The Burrowing Owl Here First?
    I work on a lot of owl projects. On several of them, it is older Good Samaritans that are trying to help them and they will talk about how long the owls have been there and in some cases that the owls were there first.
  • 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?
  • Blinky's Snail Midden
    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.
  • 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.

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!
Copyright ©2014 Birding Adventures - All rights reserved
Visitors: