Tiny burrowing owls, about the size of an average human hand, have all but disappeared from Hillsborough County due to habitat loss.
Bulldozers and road-paving equipment have plowed over their dens as the county’s human population has continued to grow. The county once had a thriving and dense burrowing owl population.
These big-eyed daytime owls, listed in Florida as a threatened species, are typically perched just outside their burrows in open fields, scouting for insects or small rodents near a pile of excavated sand. Or they once were.
“The reason they are listed is because they have experienced a pretty drastic population decline in recent years,” says Rebecca Schneider, a regional biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “All animals listed have the underlying factor of habitat loss due to development or encroachment from land use changes and of course, there are climate-related challenges.”
Enter Tampa Audubon. “If you draw a line across the county, the south half of it and over to the east, development and so forth has really wiped the population from the region,” says Tampa Audubon President Ann Paul.
Audubon members got wind of a successful project in southwest Florida where more than 400 artificial burrows were installed for the owls to provide them safe haven for nesting. And it worked. “Now we’re starting to do it up here,” Paul says.
Audubon is working with Hillsborough County’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, a few schools, strawberry farmers and ranchers to find spots for the faux burrows and get them installed.
“If we can get the word out: If you have burrowing owls, let us know and we can install some burrows to help them survive,” and attract more of them, Paul said. “The natural burrows can collapse if somebody drives a car over them or a cow steps on them. Even if they are not in the burrow, that’s a problem.”
“I have been involved in the Christmas bird counts for the last 15 years and they count the number of birds in the same geographic circle year after year,” says Tampa Audubon Vice President Sandy Reed. “It occurred to me that on these counts, we just couldn’t find these burrowing owls anymore.”
That is when Reed learned about the program in South Florida and contacted those involved. She learned that Hillsborough County and surrounding counties once had the highest number of burrowing owls in the nation. “I was horrified that now we had none.”
The artificial burrows have already been installed at Dawson Elementary School in Riverview, on a ranch in southern Hillsborough County, at Bell Creek Preserve in Riverview and near a couple of strawberry fields.
The non-collapsible faux burrows are placed in the ground and a mound of white sand is left outside for the owls to discover if they fly over. If they are located in cattle pastures, a rectangular guard is placed around the burrow so the cows can avoid stepping on them.
“The thing that will save these owls is that they are very adaptable and will tolerate people if people tolerate them,” Reed says. In the Cape Coral area, there are successful burrows near a fire station and school. They’ve also been successful on airport runways.
“There is a lot of promise due to their ability to acclimate and be adaptive to non-traditional habitat,” Schneider says. “In places like Cape Coral, the owls live on vacant lots, on non-native grasses.”
Prairie, pastures and farmland are all suitable.
“Due to the amount of new construction, they are really losing options faster than we can replace them,” Schneider says of the burrowing owls.
A stewardship responsibility
There are other subspecies of burrowing owls across the continent, but the Florida burrowing owls are endemic. “They are a unique resource. They are not something you can find anywhere else,” which is why it is important to re-establish habitat for them.
“It is a stewardship responsibility to preserve those endemic characteristics of Florida and the region,” Schneider says. “There is an ecological cascade with the loss of any one animal. There are implications for other wildlife.”
FWC often receives calls from people concerned when they see bulldozers plowing over known burrowing owl territory, she says. “When a citizen observes a violation, they can call the dispatch number to get an officer out there. It’s 888-404-3922.”
Reed says Audubon is seeking more volunteers to help locate properties like George PIasecki’s ranch in Wimauma, where several burrows have been placed. “We have a lot of potential places to put them,” but need people to step up and volunteer their land, she says. Audubon also needs volunteers to help place the burrows.
“We have nine more burrows ready to go in and we can build more,” Reed says. “We are working with the Dorothy Thomas Girl Scout Camp” in Riverview in south Hillsborough and looking for other sites.
To learn more, visit the Tampa Audubon Society website. To become a volunteer, email Sandy Reed.