Looking for the Little Owl in the Ground

After the first solar-powered GPS transmitter was put on a burrowing owl for our research in January 2017, my life and my coworkers’ lives have been engulfed with tracking burrowing owls all around Southern California.

The Burrowing Owl Recovery Team has been tracking burrowing owls to see what happens when their habitat is disturbed or destroyed from different types of development or land use changes. The team wants to learn where they go and how successful they will be in surviving and reproducing after adapting to their new surroundings. 

The team has worked in the Coachella Valley, Imperial Valley, different parts of Western Riverside, and Otay Mesa. The new technology of a lighter GPS transmitter helps us identify right where the owls go and how long they stay in each location. The GPS transmitters are not perfect by any means, so the team has had to put boots on the ground to find owls that have gone “offline” so to speak.

We also use camera traps to track individuals once we know they have settled in a particular area. With the GPS data, camera info, and observations, we have seen burrowing owls use all kinds of different areas.

For example, we have seen them using old irrigation pipes of different sizes and shapes, drainage pipes on the side of buildings, old paintball warzones, culverts, road barricades, shrubs, the international border fence, and tractor trailers to name a few. Sometimes the areas they move to are easy to access, and sometimes they are extremely hard.

Many times, I have found myself talking to a land owner that is wondering what I am doing in the area and explaining that I am just looking for a little owl that lives in the ground.

One thing that really sits in my mind after tracking burrowing owls for almost 2 years is that the life of a burrowing owl is extremely hard. There are predators everywhere from the air to the ground, and there are less and less good burrows and decreasing areas to hunt for a good meal.

With all the new information we are gathering through our research, our team can really understand the outcomes to different circumstances that are affecting burrowing owls not only in Southern California but around North America. We hope to bring to light what burrowing owls need before and after their habitat is altered, so the right plans can be put into place to make sure they survive but also thrive in the areas that are left for them.