You may not know this, but there is an owl that lives underground right in our own backyard—San Diego County. Yes, the burrowing owl lives in a ground squirrel burrow near you where it is busily catching mice, insects, and small birds to feed up to a dozen young owlets.
Burrowing owls are super cute, no doubt about it. Check out their great, big forward-facing yellow eyes with broad, white expressive eyebrows. They draw your attention and keep you mesmerized as they dance, swaying and bouncing on long featherless legs at the entrance to their burrow home. Once you know where to look for them, they are easy to spot.
Burrowing owls live in open, generally flat grassy landscapes including airports, weedy suburban fields, office parks, and golf courses—all easily accessible places for urban wildlife watching. In late spring, a large brood of owlets tumbles out of the burrow to explore above ground, and anyone lucky enough to spy an occupied nest burrow can spend the next couple of months entertained by these engaging raptors. (Our team will spend the winter analyzing photo data from camera traps that we installed at nest burrows, such as the one featured here). Unfortunately, these endearing owls are in decline both locally and throughout their range, due primarily to habitat loss and eradication of burrowing mammals.
Our culture holds owls in high regard and seems smitten with the owl persona. Likenesses of owls are ubiquitous, from books and movies to clothing and greeting cards. I’ve noticed lately that cute photos of burrowing owls are increasingly used to raise funds for various organizations. Personally, I think the species needs to set up a photo royalty fund!
Another species, the California ground squirrel, is not so well-liked and is considered an agricultural pest for many of the same reasons that prompt ecologists to call them “ecosystem engineers”: they are common, abundant, and they have a penchant for digging and foraging on everything from weedy forbs to your garden produce. Yet grasslands with an abundance of ground squirrels harbor an incredible diversity of animals. Much more so than grasslands devoid of ground squirrels. Digging creates critical underground refuge sites for a variety of wildlife, including nesting sites for burrowing owls. Foraging by squirrels keeps the vegetation low and more open, which is preferred by burrowing owls and many other species.
This year, San Diego Zoo Global and our partners started digging in the dirt to restore the relationship between burrowing owls and California ground squirrels. We relocated close to 350 California ground squirrels to secure sites that will be managed as burrowing owl habitat. The idea is simple: hire squirrels as restoration engineers to create the conditions required for nesting burrowing owls. We spent our first field season reintroducing the key ingredient, California ground squirrels. Now we watch and wait for the arrival of owls as we measure and monitor the progress of our collaborative human/squirrel efforts to restore a more intact, functional ecosystem. And we didn’t have to wait long, as burrowing owls are already checking out the newly renovated neighborhood!
Colleen Lenihan is a postdoctoral associate for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.