Burrowing owls: San Diego’s underground urban raptor

Burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) are a migratory raptor species that utilize the open spaces of San Diego County, although they can be found from the frozen plains of Canada down to the open pampas of Patagonia. They primarily feast on small mammals like mice and rats, but being the opportunistic raptors that they are, they’ll eat whatever they can get their talons on, like lizards or insects. They usually occupy open grassland habitat and nest underground, hence the name “burrowing” owls.

However, this name is misleading -- they don’t even dig their own burrows! They have coevolved with small mammal species and here in San Diego, rely on the California ground squirrel (Otospermophilus beecheyi) to create their homes. Recently though, many of these owls have relied on humans to create burrows as well.

The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research (ICR) has been working on the recovery of this species, as well as that of the California ground squirrel. The team at ICR has relocated squirrels, built artificial burrows, and relocated owls to more appropriate, or less disturbed, habitat. 

This past spring, I was lucky enough to be involved with the San Diego Zoo Global’s burrowing owl recovery program as part of my Master’s in Biology with the Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP), affiliated with Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and the San Diego Zoo. My internship with this program included many different aspects of burrowing owl recovery work. 

In the field, I assisted with hacking cage construction (the structures used for safely releasing owls after capture), the capture and release of owls for relocation, banding the birds to allow for individual identification and long-term monitoring of owl health.

I also aided in conducting regular nest checks and monitoring remote camera photos, which provides a 24-hour sneak peek into the activities at each nest. I attended a workshop on grazing and grassland habitat management, which focused on creating connections between local grazers and grassland habitat managers with the purpose of improving grassland habitat conservation and restoration using a multifaceted approach. 

Through this internship experience, I was able to expand my knowledge and enhance my experience as a biologist in Southern California, as well as to make a connection with a local species that is facing an undetermined future. 

My master’s degree is focused on the conservation of raptor species facing issues due to urbanization. Burrowing owls are the epitome of an urban raptor. They require large open grassland habitat, or more specifically, the large flat areas that people love to develop for housing, industrial parks, malls, golf courses, etc.

I feel that we, as Southern Californians, have an obligation to protect the populations that remain in our region. San Diego Zoo Global’s Vision is to “Lead the fight against extinction!” I believe that the burrowing owl recovery program, and other programs like it, are effectively demonstrating the way forward in conservation. This team is using innovative approaches to find a way to preserve the biodiversity in an area impacted by urbanization, and to maximize habitat connectivity and viability in order to allow burrowing owls to thrive in a fragmented habitat.

I feel fortunate to have helped out, even if it was just for a few months, and I will continue to apply the skills I learned as I continue my career as a biologist in Southern California.

Austin Parker, AIP Graduate Student, Miami University & San Diego Zoo Global